The nit­tygritty of crime solv­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DOU­GLAS STARR book­world@wash­ Dou­glas Starr is co-di­rec­tor of the grad­u­ate pro­gram in science jour­nal­ism at Bos­ton Univer­sity. His most re­cent book is “The Killer of Lit­tle Shep­herds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Foren­sic Science

Val McDermid is one of the most pop­u­lar crime-fic­tion writ­ers to­day. Her 27 nov­els have sold 11 mil­lion copies world­wide, ac­cord­ing to her Web site, and have won sev­eral crime-fic­tion awards. Now she has writ­ten a non­fic­tion book about crim­i­nal foren­sics as a kind of paean to all those ex­perts whose work has in­formed hers over the years. “The sto­ries these sci­en­tists have to tell us . . . are among the most fas­ci­nat­ing you will ever hear,” she de­clares, and she tells plenty of them.

McDermid or­ga­nizes the book into 12 chap­ters, each of which rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent as­pect of crime-scene in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Much as an in­ves­ti­ga­tor would, she starts by ap­proach­ing the crime scene it­self, dis­cussing how it’s cor­doned off, who takes charge, the CSI’s po­si­tion in the chain of com­mand and how the sci­en­tist works his or her way through the case. Fre­quently, she in­tro­duces us to an in­ves­ti­ga­tor who be­comes our guide.

Through­out the book, she por­trays foren­sic sci­en­tists not as emo­tion­less Sher­lock Holmes types (although she evokes him re­peat­edly) but as hu­man be­ings who care about what they do and are trou­bled by what they see. Along the way McDermid ex­am­ines top­ics of foren­sic science such as pathol­ogy, tox­i­col­ogy and fin­ger­print­ing, flesh­ing out the his­tor­i­cal and tech­ni­cal as­pects, al­ways telling vivid sto­ries. We meet a col­lec­tion of sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor Ni­amh Nic Daeid, blood-spat­ter spe­cial­ist Val Tom­lin­son, an­thro­pol­o­gist Sue Black and sev­eral oth­ers, all of whom are bright and ded­i­cated pro­fes­sion­als. We also meet some not-so-nice char­ac­ters — crim­i­nals past and present whom foren­sic spe­cial­ists have helped to ap­pre­hend. And we hear about Buck Rux­ton, who in 1935 mur­dered his wife and maid, mu­ti­lated their bod­ies (in­clud­ing cut­ting off their fin­ger­tips), and threw the parts in a stream. He was con­victed based on two key pieces of foren­sic ev­i­dence: the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a species of mag­got on the bod­ies, which nar­rowed the time frame, and a pho­to­graphic re­con­struc­tion of the vic­tims’ faces.

Such sto­ries pop­u­late the book and make it quite read­able, and McDermid’s deep dives into history and science add sub­stance. She does a com­mend­able job of ex­plain­ing some timely is­sues, such as the use of mega-data in dig­i­tal foren­sics and the latest con­tro­ver­sies about foren­sic DNA.

Yet cer­tain weak­nesses pre­vent this from be­ing the go-to book for those who wish to learn about foren­sics. The au­thor has a tol­er­ance for cliche: “Truth is stranger than fic­tion,” she tells us; a fe­male fin­ger­print ex­pert shows a “steely in­tel­li­gence,” a CSI team “came to the res­cue.” She con­cludes a smart sec­tion about how ex­perts are be­gin­ning to ques­tion the va­lid­ity of tra­di­tional fin­ger­print ev­i­dence by com­par­ing it to a “greedy grand­fa­ther . . . un­aware that the times they are a ’changin.’ ”

His­tor­i­cal in­ac­cu­ra­cies also pep­per the book. At one point, McDermid says that in the late 19th cen­tury, Al­fred Ber­tillon in­vented a sys­tem of bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that was ac­cu­rate to a fac­tor of 1 in 286 mil­lion. Ac­tu­ally he claimed an ac­cu­racy of 1 in 4 mil­lion. She lists sev­eral “firsts” that re­ally weren’t, such as her claim that French­man Ed­mond Lo­card opened the world’s first crime in­ves­ti­ga­tion lab­o­ra­tory in 1910. His pro­fes­sor, Alexan­dre La­cas­sagne, did that decades ear­lier.

This care­less writ­ing and fact-check­ing un­der­mines the book’s cred­i­bil­ity. Fur­ther­more, af­ter read­ing “Foren­sics” one could con­clude that, de­spite the oc­ca­sional prob­lems and mis­steps, foren­sic science is ba­si­cally healthy and that “the peo­ple who do it are, frankly, awe­some.” Events of the past sev­eral years show oth­er­wise, how­ever.

In a widely cited 2009 re­port, the Na­tional Academy of Sciences por­trayed foren­sic work as fun­da­men­tally flawed, say­ing that with the ex­cep­tion of DNA ev­i­dence, most foren­sic tools, such as hair com­par­i­son and blood-spat­ter anal­y­sis, are more like tra­di­tional be­liefs that have never been sta­tis­ti­cally tested. One of the most trou­bling ar­eas is ar­son in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which McDermid por­trays un­crit­i­cally in her book. Over the past cou­ple of decades, re­search has re­vealed that many of the tra­di­tional signs of ar­son also rou­tinely oc­cur in ac­ci­den­tal fires, and there have been an un­known num­ber of wrong­ful con­vic­tions. Even a cur­sory news search about ar­son will turn up the case of Cameron Todd Willing­ham, who was ex­e­cuted in Texas for the deaths of his three daugh­ters in what ex­perts now be­lieve was an ac­ci­den­tal blaze. Sim­i­larly, scan­dals sur­round­ing foren­sic lab­o­ra­tory per­son­nel have been mak­ing head­lines for years; take, for in­stance, An­nie Dookhan in Mas­sachusetts, whose fraud­u­lent prac­tices tainted tens of thou­sands of drug cases. In Bri­tain, the find­ings of an ex­plo­sives ex­pert played a role in the false con­vic­tion of the Birm­ing­ham Six. Omit­ting these scan­dals and the lessons they con­vey gives a less-than-re­al­is­tic por­trayal of the field.

That’s not to say “Foren­sics” is less than an en­joy­able read. It skips along from story to story, and read­ers who aren’t squea­mish will be en­ter­tained and in­trigued. It will cer­tainly please read­ers of McDermid’s nov­els, who will want to have her take on the sub­ject. But read­ers seek­ing an au­thor­i­ta­tive book on a rapidly emerg­ing and con­tro­ver­sial field should look else­where.


ValMcDer­mid por­trays foren­sic sci­en­tists as ded­i­cated and smart, while ig­nor­ing scan­dals in the field.

By Val McDermid Grove. 310 pp. $26 FOREN­SICS What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime

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