I love forensics. The idea of revealing secrets from the detritus of everyday life is just cool. My predilection for it probably comes from my love of archaeology. A crime scene isn’t that much different from an archaeological site; a detective not very different from an archaeologist. To uncover the truth behind their respective mysteries, each must make sense of biased and incomplete evidence. They have the difficult task of making accurate generalizations from skewed data – just the stuff that got left behind at the scene.
Imagine taking broken pot-shards that have been buried for hundreds of years and reconstructing whether the pot was on the floor or setting on a shelf just prior to when it broke. Or looking at drops of blood on a wall and determining how many blows were struck. Or looking at the skeletal remains boarded up in a wall and determining they belonged to a left-handed waitress who never had children. Or discovering that several ancient Indian burials contain individuals from the same family. All neat analyses.
However, if I’m honest, my interest in forensics probably came from reading Sherlock Holmes over and over again. The way Holmes could identify the pedigree of a tobacco by sniffing it, or the origin of an ink from the color of stains on a sheet of stationary, was the stuff great mystery novels are made of.
I think most readers’ fascination with forensic analysis comes from the idea that some people are such keen observers and have such special knowledge that secrets just can’t be kept from them. We love it when Holmes tells Watson all about a potential client just by the cut and condition of his clothes.
When I write my mysteries, I try for that kind of thrill of discovery. That kind of fun from watching an expert do her job.
One of the challenges for a writer is keeping up with cutting edge forensics. Forensic science and its practitioners are constantly working out new ways of uncovering information and inventing new machines that can do it in a flash. I mean, how cool is a mass spectrometer!
We are fascinated with how much forensic science can actually do. Like archaeology, it covers a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines. The philosophy behind forensic crime scene investigation is that everyone who enters or leaves a scene leaves behind something distinctive and takes away something distinctive that can identify them. Sometimes this something is microscopic. The magic comes in being able to identify these small things to such specificity that no doubt is left as to their origin. For example, in my latest novel, The Night Killer, crime scene forensic specialists are required to determine the origin of one microscopic piece of glitter found on a victim from all possible sources of glitter – and that it came from the same batch of glitter bought at a craft store in another state. (And, yes, forensic people can do that.)
For me, what is most interesting about the forensics in a mystery is not just the technical aspect, but the fascination that comes from watching the detective in the story use her unique knowledge and skills in the solution of crimes. Long after you may have forgotten a specific plot of one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, you vividly remember Sherlock himself and his amazing abilities.
- Beverly Connor