The importance of being accurate in forensics
Invisible Evidence – Forensics in New Zealand
By Bill O’Brien
The writer of Aramoana – 22 Hours of Terror (which was apparently the basis for the excellent Out of the Blue film) provides a brilliant overview of the forensic disciplines employed at crime scenes. Published in 2007, it covers a diverse range of modern forensics from the well established like fingerprints, bloodstain analysis and firearm evidence; to the more modern techniques of DNA analysis, electronic crime lab and isotopic analysis; as well as the more obscure areas such as forensic palynology and entomology.
I’m very impressed with the organisation and layout of the book. While the book is dense with details and clear explanations, it also contains illustrative examples throughout from real criminal cases in New Zealand, revealing how the forensic evidence was instrumental in the crime solving. It’s actually a very enjoyable read, so much so that I found myself picking it up in the morning to read while I munched away on my breakfast cereal.
Whilst I got it out of the library, I expect I’m going to have to buy my own copy to refer to in the future. A girl never knows when she’ll next need to check on the specific species of blowfly and quantity of maggots that might be found in a severed head after a couple of days.
Traces of Guilt (Science fights crime in New Zealand)
By Guy Brown and Peter Llewellyn
While the parenthetical subtitle conjures up the image of a weedy personified SCIENCE with glasses and a lab-coat, punching the oversized jaw of a cartoonish thug, bearing the label ‘CRIME’ around his neck, this book is not simply blatant propaganda to get more kids interested in studying science for its amazing crime-fighting qualities. It does however provide interesting insights into how forensic evidence is found and used in solving crimes in New Zealand. Written up as a series of case study mysteries, these accounts of the crimes are reasonably detailed in forensic information and facts, and useful photos and diagrams are included throughout the book. I found it not quite as useful as the previous book in terms of thorough yet concise explanations of the forensic techniques themselves. It’s more of a narrative-based approach to NZ crime non-fiction with an emphasis on how the forensic science is used in crime-solving.
Non-NZ Forensic sources:
Listen to the Voices
Blog by Clarissa Draper
Contains an excellent series of posts on the Mystery Writer’s Guide to Forensic Science. She does extremely clear explanations often with great photos, links and glossaries. It’s useful to have a forensic science resource that's tailored to the needs of crime writers who want to be as accurate as possible. It gives a slightly different perspective from a general overview or a book promoting science to youngsters who are considering a future career in the field. I found the Blood Spatter ones particularly useful. Part 1 and Part 2
The Crime Scene: How Forensic Science Works
By W. Mark Dale and Wendy S. Becker (2007 USA)
Very similar to the excellent Invisible Evidence in terms of providing a great overview of a diverse range of forensic techniques, concise explanations of the science, fantastic layout and use of photos, graphs and specific case-files to demonstrate the application of various forensic techniques.
The state statistical comparisons and staggering resources of the FBI do make you feel the difference between forensics in the US compared to a tiny country of 4 million people. Apparently, the NZ National Forensic Pathology service has only 6 senior forensic pathologists, and one of these specialists will attend virtually every suspicious death or homicide in the country*. Somewhat different to America.
Another interesting comparison between the NZ and US forensic science texts is the few chapters that deal with different aspects. Both thoroughly cover the expected areas of vehicles, firearms, pathology, toxicology, crime scene protocol, sample collection, DNA, blood, fingerprints etc, but the New Zealand book also has chapters on soil analysis, forensic palynology (spores and pollen) and entomology (insects). The America text The Crime Scene has chapters on legal issues, police/lab culture and case triage – topics only mentioned as brief asides in its NZ counterpart. I guess it’s indicative of the fact that US have a far larger and more complex system with the differences arising between Federal versus State jurisdiction, matters which I don’t know nearly enough about to comment on.
The presence of natural environment in NZ forensic science is one I find fits pleasingly with my view of our country. Our habitat (embodied by earth, pollen and bugs) pervades everything, especially crimes scenes and bodies. I suppose I’m also biased towards the importance of these areas in science because my father used to work as a scientist for DSIR at the Soil Bureau in Taita. I remember visiting his work as a kid and being terribly impressed. Back then the computers were massive and printed long streams of perforated paper. (I sort of miss the old juggernaut-like computers – they were chunky and noisy like the computers on Science Fiction TV shows).
The DSIR building seemed huge and it all very much looked like how I thought proper science should appear. Plus the kids’ Christmas parties they held there were the best ever. I won a Milky Bar prize in a treasure hunt one year thus I felt destined for an illustrious career in science. Alas the Soil Bureau became Land Care and moved up to Palmerston before I even reached university. I blame this and the unpleasantness of Quantum Mechanics*** in third year Physical Chemistry, not the failing auspices of the Milky Bar, for this career not eventuating. (Admittedly my sister did become a scientist who now works for Land Care, and to the best of my knowledge she never won a Milky Bar at a Soil Bureau treasure hunt, so maybe it was the chocolate’s fault after all. Confectionary moves in mysterious ways…)
*Source: Invisible Evidence (Published 2007)**
** We may have another one by now but I doubt our homicide rate has increased enough to justify a seventh.
*** Quantum Mechanics can be blamed for most things. Putting cats in boxes in hypothetical states of simultaneous death and not-death for starters.****
**** OK, I know it’s not necessarily Quantum Mechanics fault so much as the Copenhagen interpretation of them. However, I still think that shutting cats, even theoretical ones, in boxes with poison, radioactive material and what have you is unnecessarily cruel. Why couldn’t it be a theoretical tarantula or ill-tempered crab? I wouldn’t mind nearly so much then.