If you are a crime writer or an accumulator of curious facts, two recently published non-fiction books merit attention.
When the Dogs Don’t Bark, A forensic scientist’s Search for the Truth, is Professor Angela Gallop’s personal account of the development of forensic science over the last 40 years. On TV, crimes may appear solved by gut feelings (the dogs aren’t barking) but in real life it takes painstaking, meticulous scientific work re-imagining crime scenes and developing analytical tests which prove the guilt or innocence of suspects. Every few pages there is a remarkable real crime story or a detail about police, forensic and court work.
Gallop’s Oxford MPhil was on sea slugs, but prompted by a friend, she moved into the even more curious world of forensics at the Home Office. Despite initial jibes that it was ‘no job for a woman’ she has risen to being regarded as world authority, still working past retirement in less-developed countries and on cold cases. The book reads like a history of UK crime, starting with the Yorkshire Ripper, she traverses many notorious headline crimes including the ’suicide’ of Vatican banker Roberto Calvi under a London Bridge. By asking her husband (wearing similar clothes) to attempt to hang himself on identically reconstructed scaffolding in her garden she proved this impossible!
When fortunate enough to share a stage with her at Bloody Scotland Festival, I discovered she is as generous in person to the team work of her colleagues and dedication to fairness for defence lawyers as she depicts in her book. Crime writers’ pointers include the fact that corpses invariably look peaceful (not a la Agatha Christie) and Locar’s Exchange Principle means ‘every contact leaves a trace.’ Blood is never completely eradicated. Multiple agencies analyse data e.g police do fingerprints, forensic biologists examine blood patterns, hair/blood/nail/teeth and DNA identification. Pathologists seek cause of death and analyse wounds. Digital forensics grows exponentially. Tests can prove extraordinary things about glass, metal or paint fragments. Sticky tapes from a body or clothing with transferred fibres/blood yield evidence. Criminals’ should always avoid wearing woolly gloves or unusual trainers on the job…
Dame Sue Black’s book All That Remains is very different: a look at life as a forensic anthropologist dealing with analysis and identification of corpses and skeletal remains. A sensitively written volume, it explores the many facets of death but it is anything but horrific or disturbing; her openness in discussing her early life and the deaths of those close to her at the beginning sets the tone for the book. It is crammed with curious facts regarding world-wide burial rites and customs eg Japanese relatives placing cremated bone fragments in urns feet first so that the deceased remains upright in death. She emphasises the importance of respecting remains and helping relatives seeking closure by identification of loved ones killed by natural disasters like tsunamis or war, like Kosovo. And she highlights much noteworthy research e.g. castration lengthens life and the development of the risk assessment tool, the micromort….
Wanting to use modern embalming techniques for dissection bodies but lacking funding for a new facility at Dundee University, Black and her friend, crime writer Val McDermid, launched a Million for a Morgue campaign. They produced a Killer Cookbook, had donors bidding to become characters in novels and voting for which participating writer from Stuart McBride, Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Child, Jeff Lindsay, Peter James, Tess Gerritson, Kathy Reichs, Mark Billingham or Harlan Coben would have their name on the new facility. The Val McDermid Mortuary opened in 1974. Sue Black also helped save WW2 codebreaking headquarters, Bletchley Park.
Two great books to keep and re-refer to.