From a bestselling mystery author, a curiosity-fueled look at the realities behind crime science.
Scotland-based McDermid (The Skeleton Road, 2014, etc.) has published 29 novels, but she approaches the grisly realities of crime scenes and corpses with a neophyte’s sense of wonder. In the preface, she notes that “crime fiction proper only began with an evidence-based legal system [that] those pioneering scientists and detectives bequeathed us.” True to this notion of a historical debt, the author discusses forensic science’s development by identifying the first cases solved by insect analysis, ballistics, and other once-radical tactics. She focuses on topics ranging from toxicology and blood spatter to innovations in DNA replication and forensic anthropology. For each, she provides an approachable scientific overview and a narrative of significant cases, interspersed with commentary from top forensic investigators (one of whom tartly observes about her peers’ formidable senses of certainty, “they are not being trained to think that an opinion is an opinion”). McDermid is clearly fascinated by odd, obscure historical details—e.g., the French once called arsenic “inheritance powder”; fingerprinting was used in India and Argentina before it was trusted in England or America. The author establishes that public interest in forensics is nothing new; since the early 20th century, these new types of scientists were made into celebrities by “scores of journalists, hungry for a ‘scientist foils serial killer’ headline.” McDermid emphasizes the meticulousness of these professionals and claims that they learn from flawed cases, which become notorious among them, and for good reason: “If it suits the [defense] lawyer’s narrative, they will undermine first a scientist’s testimony and then their good name.” The author concludes by arguing that accelerating innovations in forensic science make the apprehension of violent felons ever likelier, noting how DNA technology has solved numerous cold cases, and forensic anthropology has proved equally useful for investigating child pornographers and mass graves in Kosovo.
A satisfying insider’s excursion into the scientific realities behind CSI-style pop culture.