Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

If we presented Michael Faraday or Paracelsus with the scientific evidence our courts now take for granted, it would seem like magic to those most rigorous of researchers. And the advance of science has run hand in hand with corresponding advances in the delivery of justice.

As much as I like McDermid’s works of fiction, Forensics didn’t work well for me. She does acknowledge at the end of the book that she was new to non-fiction writing (her history in journalism aside) and that this book was, more or less, an experiment, but that didn’t help my enjoyment as a reader.

The thing is, I could not stop comparing the book to other books and tv series that I enjoyed infinitely more and that I learned more from – and I am including my first love of all things forensic in this: Quincy, M.E.

Yup. I feel like I got a better understanding of the science of forensics from a 1970s tv drama than from what is supposed to be a book about the very topic.

While I enjoyed reading about the cases told in the book, I was missing a common thread that these stories were supposed to illustrate. It felt more like there were a number of stories which were aligned because they had some basis on forensic investigation and a tenuous connection to forensic sciences today. There just was not enough of a clear train of thought that would explain what points, discoveries, or scientific facts these stories were supporting.

I’m not going to say that there was not enough science in the book – although I would have wished for more – because the book could have worked as a history of forensic science, if the structure had been developed on that line. However, it was not clear enough to me what the sections were supposed to add up to. There seemed to be too many human interest stories amongst the reported cases that just distracted from trail of scientific discovery. And did I miss an analysis of how different forensic methods changed criminal investigations beyond a general statement here or there throughout the book?

Surely, that would have been worthwhile?

The book was not all bad, tho. The history on fingerprints was interesting.

Our fingerprints are part of us from before birth; they first appear in the tenth week of pregnancy, when the foetus measures only 8 cm. As one of the three layers of tissue that make up the foetus’s skin – the basal layer – starts to grow at faster rate than the other two, ridges form to relieve the resulting stresses, ‘like the buckling of land masses under compression’. If your finger pads were flat, the pressure on the skin would be equal and the ridges would be parallel. But because finger pads

slope, ridges form along lines of equal stress, most usually in concentric circles. Ridge patterns also appear across the palms of our hands and on the bottoms of our feet. Other primates have them, too, and evolutionary biologists believe there are good reasons for them. They help our skin to stretch and deform, protecting it from damage; they create valleys down which sweat can escape, reducing slipperiness when we hold things; and they give us more contact (and hence grip) with rough surfaces like tree bark. When we touch a surface with a finger, the ridges leave their unique pattern on it. Even the prints of identical twins differ.

And the general history of discoveries, however superficial, was interesting. It is just that the overwhelming part of the book is just that – superficial, with a side dish of case reporting that had a bias towards human interest and sensationalism.

As for the impact that the advances in forensic science have made in the delivery of justice, I may have missed this altogether as there seemed very little about any changes in law or procedure that derived specifically from the advance in forensic science. For example, I was expecting a link between the chapter on arson and the Stardust Disco fire to any changes in law because the Stardust fire led directly to changes in law in the following years that still provide the basis  for Building Control legislation in Ireland today (see here for an interesting blog post about this).

It felt throughout the book that Mcdermid’s focus was on the descriptive, the shocking, and the telling of stories than on the investigation of facts, on analysis, or on effects of the cases she reported.

For a non-fiction book with the sub-title of “What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, And More Tell Us About Crime” there was just not enough factual discussion, analysis, or even discussion of different ideas in this book to make this an enjoyable non-fiction read.

Again, there was more science, discussion and balanced argument coming from this guy:

(And, yes, I am totally hijacking my post for a Quincy-fangirl agenda.)


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