A hodgepodge of 32 brief accounts of murder trials that purports to represent milestones in the history of forensic science—presented, however, in an order that has no discernible rhyme or reason.
British journalist Wilkes has culled his selections primarily from accounts by true-crime writers in Great Britain and (with three exceptions) has limited himself to 20th-century crimes. Presented first is the most recent case, a 1985 trial in which forensic evidence did not provide conclusive proof of the murderer’s identity—chosen perhaps to show that science has a way to go in its battle with crime. A 1752 case is cited as the first on record in which scientific proof of poisoning was presented at a murder trial. Other cases illustrate the first use of fingerprinting in a murder trial (1905), the first forensic analysis of ink (1907), and the first use of an Identikit to construct a picture of a suspect’s face (1961). Several cases feature identification of dentures, dental work, or tooth marks, and reconstruction of mutilated bodies and severed heads. Especially fascinating is a 1964 case, written by the government pathologist involved, in which his expert testimony about the life cycle of bluebottle maggots established the time of death and destroyed the murderer’s alibi. Two murder cases involve mass screenings: the 1948 fingerprinting of the entire male population of Blackburn, England, foreshadowed the 1987 collection of DNA samples from all young males in three English villages in Leicestershire. Inexplicably, Wilkes places the DNA case early in his collection and the fingerprinting case near the end.
Fans of true crime may be satisfied by this jumbo assortment of cases, but those interested in the development of forensic science will find it a frustrating jumble of anecdotes.