Thursday, April 15, 2010

Forensics in your crime story? Better know your stuff!

Even though we may be writing a work of crime fiction, any elements of it that have links to reality must be correctly presented. For instance, if you are referencing an intersection of two streets in downtown Seattle, you'd better make certain, not only that those two streets exist in downtown Seattle, but also that they do, in fact, intersect at some point. The necessity of realism doesn't only apply to location however. It applies to the use of any non-fictional material, especially in the area of forensic science.

Any work of crime fiction is going to incorporate some reference to evidence, clues, forensics, however you want to term it. Before you begin including or explaining any of these, make sure you have done extensive research on the subject. There are countless resources out there on the subject, but I recently finished reading an excellent one. Don't let the title fool you. It doesn't try to sensationalize any of the cases or be overly dramatic in any of the areas. It simply explains different areas of forensic science and the various procedures and protocols that go along with them. Real life is not like an episode of Law and Order. Perpetrators are not identified, apprehended, indicted, tried and convicted in an hour. While there are some cases that are solved in a relatively short period of time, depending on circumstances, there are those that remain insolved for decades, and also those that will probably remain so indefinitely. The collection and processing of the various types of evidence is a painstaking process and is handled by a group of very well educated and highly trained individuals. The book I just read even introduces you to a few of those. The book is entitled Jumped, Fell or Pushed?, published in 2009 by The Readers' Digest Association, Inc. It is by Steven A. Koehler, MPH, Ph.D., with Pete Moore, Ph.D., and David Owen.

I knew I was going to be very interested in what they had to say and that I was going to be able to learn a great deal about the different areas of forensics right from the beginning, when I read about a couple of terms. One was 'crime scene', and the other was 'scene of the crime'. These terms are interchangeable, right? Wrong. They explain how the scene of the crime might be the basement of a home where a dead body may have been found, but the crime scene may be the entire house and part of the driveway, where the killer first encountered the victim. This is why sealing off of the entire crime scene, however much ground that may encompass, is so critical. Evidence could be found anywhere within that area. When describing your 'scene of the crime' or 'crime scene', bear this important fact in mind. Great detail is paid to how searches are done, including the photographs that are taken and the use of video, in some cases.

Detailed descriptions are provided of how various substances are tested in the laboratory. There is an entire chapter devoted to the evidence exchange--explaining how 'any encounter between two individuals (or an individual and the environment) results in an exchange in physical material'. It is shown how samples are retrieved and compared, and how their characteristics are determined. The big one, DNA, and all the various databases containing same, is shown both to have convicted the guilty and exonerated the innocent. There is a chapter on the examination and analysis of body fluids. The chapter, What's your Poison?, deals with toxicology following the autopsy of a suspicious death. The one on ballistics begins by breaking firearms down to 'rifled' and 'nonrifled'. This was a variance in guns that I previously was unaware of. The one entitled Making an Impression confirms that even though a criminal may wear gloves or use other methods to try to disguise the fact they were at a particular location, they always leave a trace of something behind, be it a hair of theirs, of their pet, a fiber off their jacket, soil from their shoes, something always gets left behind. If a suspect denies ever having been at a certain place, and a trace of something can be linked back to them, well, let's just say, they've got a lot of explaining to do. They go over fingerprints and footprints, the use of voice prints, and some impressions deliberately made, such as bite marks. Lastly, they discuss the paper trail--i.e., forgeries and so on, and how documents and signatures are identified as such.

In between all the educational type information and the 'day-in-the-life' pieces from various forensic scientists, there are discussions of specific cases, and the role different areas of forensics played in obtaining the outcome. I recommend this very highly as a great source of information for the crime writer, fiction or otherwise. It is an easy read, very thorough, never boring, and covers a lot of ground.

Like I said at the start, even if your story is fictional, when your detective collects fiber evidence at the scene, or the technician matches the rifling on bullets from the victim and the test fire, make sure it was collected according to standard protocol and the chain of evidence properly followed at the lab. Readers of crime fiction watch The First 48 and Forensic Files too, and if you think you can slip one by and no one will notice, think again. The second they identify your 'forensic screw-up', and they will, they're done with your story and probably with you as an author as well. Make up crimes, make up characters, make up towns, but when it comes to the old 'bag and tag' stuff, keep it real.


  1. This sounds like an excellent resource, thank you for the recommendation!

    I just wish that shows like CSI believed in making their forensics realistic. It started off pretty realistic, but went downhill quick.

  2. Good stuff. I'll be looking for J.F.or P. Another good book on the subject is Doc Lyle's Forensics For Dummies. here's a link:

  3. Rebecca, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I really enjoyed this one and plan to keep it handy. I realize CSI and shows like that do have time contraints, but there is always time for accuracy. I think it would make the shows more enjoyable. All they would need to do is maybe leave out a couple of things and fill in others with more info. That sure would be nice!

    AJ, Thanks for taking the time to stop by. I really appreciate the link. I'm going to look into that book. Thanks for sharing that!