Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: 'Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime' by Val McDermid

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime
By Val McDermid

Review by David Wineberg

If the study of forensics were put on a chart, it would look like human population. It would flatline for thousands of years, then suddenly take off about 200 years ago, and shoot straight up in the 21st century. Val McDermid leverages that parabolic curve in her crime fiction. Her research is meant to make her stories exciting, amazing and authentic. But as in everything, truth is stranger than fiction, and Forensics is amazing because it traces these astonishing developments in depth. The level of sophistication seems to rise almost daily, changing the nature of investigations, the rate of convictions, and the very process of justice. Cold cases can be revived and solved, and the wrongly convicted can go free. Sometimes.

Along the way, it is inevitable that the reader learns some odd facts:
-dead bodies absorb arsenic from surrounding soil, making the claim of arsenic poisoning suspect.
-hair grows about a centimeter month, allowing scientists to track drug consumption.
-the iphone 5S has a specialized location chip that runs off reserve power. People have reported their iphones continuing to track their movements for four days after the battery has died and the phone shut itself off.
-thanks to various insatiably curious scientists, we know the thickness of facial flesh and can reconstruct faces from skulls. We can determine the size and shape of an entire body from a bone fragment. We know what bugs consume dead human flesh, when they do it, what stage of life they were at the time, and can pinpoint the time of death by them.
-the study of blood splatter has come to the point where we can reconstruct everything about the scene from it. Tiny splatters of DNA-worthy blood are now expected and found in places no one ever looked before.
-women are 85% of forensic psychologists.
-the British police hire scientists and psychologists to solve crimes, creating profiles from the clues at the crime scene. They help narrow the list of suspects and focus searches. And add their own errors and prejudices.

Forensics would do Sherlock Holmes proud. It makes a continually changing and fascinating read. The successes, failures and abuses of the system share space with the human sloppiness and mistakes that land innocent people in prison for life – or worse. McDermid demonstrates them concretely and fairly. She obviously both loves and appreciates it all, and it shows.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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