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

The science of criminal detection from a writer with expertise and connections in the field.

forensics

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (The Skeleton Road) expands on her considerable experience with Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, she studies the fields encompassed by forensic science and the large role that such detailed evidence plays in the modern judicial system.

In writing fiction, McDermid routinely consults professionals in law enforcement and scientific experts; here, she delves into their worlds to examine the history and challenges of their work. Chapters focus on crime and fire scenes, entomology, pathology, toxicology, forensic psychology and anthropology, the courtrooms and legal systems of various countries and more. McDermid visits with experts in each of these fields, exploring their personal and professional experiences, which can include trauma as well as deeply stimulating and important work. She also covers specific criminal cases, ranging from serial killings and rape to common burglary, that illustrate the science in question, and offers impressions of her own.

McDermid is not a perfectly impartial judge of the professions she considers; the tone of Forensics is more admiring than journalistic. She provides a great service in reducing complex science to a narrative easily understood by laypersons, and thereby allows fans of television crime drama and detective novels a heightened appreciation of the genre. Details are often predictably graphic, but never gratuitously so, and should be well within the tolerances of murder-mystery buffs. Forensics is an easy-reading introduction to the science behind criminal detection and a fine companion to fiction like McDermid’s.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 pairs of gloves.

In the Spider’s Web by Jerome Gold

Striking, deeply honest, and sensitively told, this novel based in real life considers juvenile prisons and all its dramas.

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Jerome Gold calls In the Spider’s Web a “nonfiction novel.” In it, he depicts the routines and characters of a prison for juveniles, centering on one young woman in particular. All the events really happened and are drawn from his years working as a rehabilitation counselor at the institution he calls Ash Meadow–some supporting characters are composites, but all the major players are real people; names except his own, places, and some other details are changed to shield identities. As might be expected, the stories Gold relates are often disturbing, but they are beautifully told from a sober and compassionate perspective.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on April 28, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 8 points.

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

A dramatically told history of murder, madness and urban growing pains.

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In The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Roseanne Montillo (The Lady and Her Monsters) concentrates on a gripping era of Boston’s history. In the late 1800s, a series of seemingly unrelated events are her focus: the Great Fire of 1872, which broke out despite the efforts of a fire chief who saw dangers parallel to Chicago’s Great Fire the previous year; the literary work of Herman Melville, who was increasingly fascinated by the concept of insanity; and, at the heart of this book, the crimes and incarceration of a boy named Jesse Harding Pomeroy.

Montillo follows Pomeroy’s childhood, his early crimes of torture against younger boys and the murders of two small children for which he would be convicted, in a burned-out city struggling with modernization and increasing class divisions. Throughout the investigation and trial, Pomeroy exhibits characteristics that would later have termed him a psychopath, and his lawyers’ attempt to plead insanity is part of the early establishment of precedent in such cases. Meanwhile, Melville experiments in his literature with the labels of monomania and moral insanity, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes applies his medical expertise to the possible role of sensational dime novels in Pomeroy’s crimes, and weighs in on the question of executing the boy, who was 14 years old at the time of his conviction. Using detailed research, Montillo braids together these cross-disciplinary subjects–urban development and class, fire and murder, the definition of insanity and the standards of judicial punishment–into a story that has the momentum of a thriller.


This review originally ran in the March 31, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 piles of ashes.

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel

(Happy birthday today to my handsome Husband!)

inheritorsWhat a juicy title and cover; right up my alley. True crime, history, some light (accessible) science, and a little murder mystery. Yes, please.

Sandra Hempel’s book about the arsenic poisoning epidemic of the early 1800’s, and the advances in forensic medicine and pursued it, is very much in the tradition of The Invention of Murder and The Remedy, obviously. To a lesser extent it also relates to The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable and The Devil in the White City. I don’t mean to say that Hempel’s work is unoriginal, you understand, but these are the books I’ve read that feed my interest in the subject, and can continue to satisfy yours.

Much of this story was familiar to me, mostly from The Invention of Murder. Britain in the 1800’s saw an increase in crime, particularly murder – or at least an increase in its recognition and efforts to curb it – and the birth of the police force and investigations. The early 1800’s also saw a wild increase in the use of arsenic both as a household solution to just about any ailment, and as a quick and easy way to dispatch one’s fellow human. It was called “the inheritor’s powder” because so many people apparently used it to gain an inheritance ahead of the natural schedule. The growing prevalence of cheap life insurance or “burial clubs” played a role here as well.

This background is conveyed easily and accessibly and, again, is also covered in The Invention of Murder; where The Inheritor’s Powder breaks new ground is in delving into arsenic more deeply, and specifically into one sensational case that illustrates the larger issues. In November of 1833 a well-to-do farm family fell ill after their morning coffee; the elderly patriarch would suffer several painful days before dying, while the others would recover. The local doctor suspected arsenic poisoning almost from the first, and conducted some investigations of his own, including saving samples of the coffee grounds in question and the old man’s vomit. (It was later noted that there was so much vomit around that there may be some question of whose vomit it really was…) “Investigations” and “evidence” were new concepts, and our modern understandings would be incredulous at the attempts, but for his time, this local doc was proactive and scientific in his methods. There was a police inquiry, an inquest, and eventually a trial in which a lazy grandson was acquitted (on questionable grounds); but various members of the family came under suspicion and we still don’t know exactly who or what killed George Bodle.

Hempel details the court case and the public interest that followed it. Charles Dickens gets some play here (again, as in The Invention of Murder), which adds to the macro-view of this issue in society and in history: the literary minds of the day were at least as interested in the arsenic epidemic as anybody else. Hempel also looks into the science of testing for poisoning, or specifically for arsenic. Medical science was at such a stage that it was very difficult to distinguish one malady (say, poisoning by arsenic) from another (say, food poisoning by rotten fish) – and of course this question is separate from the question of whether poisoning by arsenic was intentional and therefore criminal, or accidental. Again, I must stress as Hempel does, arsenic was pretty ubiquitous at the time; people mixed it up and applied or swallowed it in various forms for a wide range of complaints. Chemists (or as we see here, chymists) were hard at work on the issue of testing for the presence of arsenic and various substances; cases like the Bodle murder were influential in moving the science forward.

I found this topic rather fascinating, and it was a good way to get a look at what 1830’s English life looked like. For example, I was interested to read about the conflict over who would pay for the investigations and trial – the local parish? Bodle’s estate? his survivors, or the executors of his will? Nobody wanted to pay; but society couldn’t just let this murder go unpunished, either. This was an issue that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

Hempel’s writing and research are fine, but lack the quirky style, entertaining writing, or personality that make a work of popular history really stand out. For readers interested in the topic, by all means go forth. But this is not enough of a page-turner to convert the dubious.


Rating: 6 grains.

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter

An exhilarating real-life thriller about the murder that revealed the power of the telegraph.

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Australian historian Carol Baxter melds true crime and science in the gripping The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable. The electric telegraph (or the “electric constable,” as it was known) was a newfangled, doubtful-looking invention in 1845, when a well-liked young woman was found gasping her final breaths in the small English town of Slough. Fortuitously, Slough was connected by an experimental telegraph line to Paddington Station; when a distinctively dressed gentleman was seen leaving the apparent murder scene and boarding a train, quick-thinking locals sent word along the line. The pursuit by telegraph of a criminal suspect marked a turning point, Baxter argues, and sparked the communications revolution that continues today. That the suspect, John Tawell, was a Quaker made this case still more sensational, and his personal history as a transported convict helped to transfix the public.

This peculiar case involved not only the “electric constable” but also the new fields of toxicology and forensic science. The murder trial riveted the medical and legal professions, setting new precedents; the public, already inspired by poisoning cases, was riveted by the cyanide evidence that “the Quaker murderer” provided. Baxter’s accounts of the telegraph’s technology, the prevailing cultural climate regarding murder and poisonings, contemporary forensic methods and Tawell’s personal history are all worthy of an engrossing thriller. (Her research was meticulous, though, she explains in an author’s note, and all the dialogue attributed and factual.) Expertly told, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable is a captivating accomplishment in nonfiction.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 dark suits.

The Investigator by Terry Lenzner

An investigator’s caseload over the decades offers a captivating glimpse of the intersection of politics, celebrity and money in the U.S.

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Terry Lenzner’s career began in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the 1960s, and has ranged from the Senate Watergate Committee through private legal practice to his own company, Investigative Group International. A lawyer by training, he found his passion in research and sleuthing. The Investigator reads like a Forrest-Gump-style catalogue of cases that have caught the public eye–from the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, to the Harrisburg 7’s federal case for antiwar activism, to Watergate, the Unabomber, Monica Lewinsky and the death of Princess Diana.

Lenzner’s clients include governments, politicians, businessmen and celebrities; the resulting wide-ranging subject matter in this memoir accounts in part for its appeal. Even the tedious financial fact-checking of an investigation into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is brought to life by Lenzner’s passion. He gives character sketches of public figures he’s known, debunks public perceptions of certain events and offers investigative tips along the way. He is concerned with the truth, not satisfying the client at any price, and shares anecdotes in which the two goals were irreconcilable.

Impressively, this seasoned investigator is also a fine writer. His story opens compellingly, giving background while simultaneously jumping right into the action. Although “this isn’t meant to be a history book,” Lenzner writes, The Investigator is an absorbing and intelligent sampling of American history, told in puzzles and–sometimes–solutions.


This review originally ran in the October 22, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 witnesses.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

An exhaustive, engaging examination of how murder and the murder mystery novel infiltrated our modern world by way of 19th-century Britain.

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Judith Flanders (A Circle of Sisters) tackles an unwieldy subject in The Invention of Murder, telling the tale admirably well, even entertainingly.

The Victorian British, Flanders tells us, were the first to identify murder as an object of fascination–inspiring in turn a passionate interest in trials, executions, motives and, eventually, the developing profession of solving crimes. The action opens in 1811 with the murdered Marr family, and quickly moves to 1820s Edinburgh, where Burke and Hare infamously killed so they could to sell the corpses to doctors as medical specimens. Flanders introduces a lengthy list of famous (and obscure) murderers and serial killers, culminating, of course, with Jack the Ripper. Alongside the killers and their victims, she presents Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and many contributions by Charles Dickens to illustrate her thesis that murder in life inspired murder in art. Fictional murderers and detectives play a role equal to their real-life counterparts, as Sweeney Todd and Sherlock Holmes take the stage.

Flanders also tracks the evolution of the police force from a force of deterrence to an investigative organization, along with the parallel development of murder and detection in literature and on the stage. The penny-blood (or penny-dreadful), a cheap booklet telling a sordid and often illustrated tale of horror, morphs into the detective novel (and play), as the public shifts its interest from bloody murder to the newly invented and increasingly sympathetic crimesolvers we know and love today.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 dismembered parts.
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