Saturday, December 16, 2017

Some Thoughts: Forensics What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime

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

**Also known under the title 'Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime'

by Val McDermid

~ Goodreads ~

Rating:  2.5 Stars

Val McDermid is one of the finest crime writers we have, whose novels have captivated millions of readers worldwide with their riveting narratives of characters who solve complex crimes and confront unimaginable evil.  In the course of researching her bestselling novels McDermid has become familiar with every branch of forensics, and now she uncovers the history of this science, real-world murders and the people who must solve them.

The dead talk—to the right listener.  They can tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died, and, of course, who killed them.  Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help serve justice using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene, or the faintest of human traces.  Forensics draws on interviews with some of these top-level professionals, ground-breaking research, and McDermid’s own original interviews and firsthand experience on scene with top forensic scientists.

Along the way, McDermid discovers how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine one’s time of death; how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer; and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist were able to uncover the victims of a genocide.  It’s a journey that will take McDermid to war zones, fire scenes, and autopsy suites, and bring her into contact with both extraordinary bravery and wickedness, as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.

I can't deny that the direction, inspiration, and point behind this book is in the right place.  It seems that author Val McDermid had set out to showcase and introduce forensics and its role in criminal justice, and has done exactly that.  And this book was enjoyable in its own way, with a lot of information, certainly well-researched.  The writing is easy to follow, and each chapter is formatted in the same fashion, with introductory, history, experts, and case examples.

Unfortunately, if I had to describe this book to friends or interested parties, I'd have to go with something akin to: "An Introductory Textbook to the History of Forensic Science."  It certainly reads like a textbook--previously I had mentioned to a friend that this book reads like a jumble of news articles and case reports that don't have the full story of each of the cases presented.  That it's just a copy-and-paste of the author's interview notes, with word-for-word quotes, and pre-approved descriptions and character histories of each expert she had interviewed.  There were certain moments in some chapters where she introduces the reader to a certain expert, but then awkwardly incorporates a description of said expert, that can ONLY be described as very awkwardly inserted.

This is jarring to me as a reader, because then I spend a good moment wondering why the author used such a descriptor, and wondering if those were her words, or if that is how our mentioned expert wants to be introduced in the chapter.  Or maybe they were words given to our author by friends or associates of said expert.  I mean, why do I need to know some random personal lifestyle tidbits about our toxicologist or facial reconstruction expert?

As I got further into each of the chapters, I wasn't really sure how to describe the book anymore.  Is it an introductory textbook?  Is it a collection of badly edited news articles and case reports?  I read a few updates for this book that liken parts of the writing to purposefully creating sensationalized phrases and exclamations of the case examples just to get the reader's attention--something I DID come across a few times that seemed highly unnecessary.

I found that a few sentences here and there, or a piece of dialogue or quote, would occasionally present that felt like it had nothing to do with the subject or the case example being discussed.  Again, I would end up taking a moment to wonder to myself why this particular quote was incorporated.

I felt like the book could have served better by delving just a tad bit deeper into the sciences or the procedures of each forensic science technique.  I mean, I don't need a full semester of Genetics or Anthropology, or anything like that, but at least give me more than just the bare minimum.  I came to a point in the book where it felt like I was just a short, hand's grasp away from getting the full story of the subject presented, as well as the case example used to illustrate said subject... right before we hit a wall and stop discussing the topic.

There felt like there were a lot of: "... and then our forensic expert used his/her expertise to help solve the crime."  And I'm still staring at those last sentences of that paragraph wondering just exactly what our expert did to come to his or her conclusions.  Meanwhile, the chapter has moved onto another case example, or another part of the subject and how wondrous this technique was in becoming a great tool for criminal investigations.

I mean, I already know that there have been a lot of advances in forensics--I took some classes in college a long time ago, and have always been interested in the subject.  I don't really need that point reiterated several times within each chapter.

And I would have liked for the subject and the case examples to be a bit less incomplete.  I understand that science is an ever-evolving field, and that we couldn't possibly know everything there is to know about stuff like Toxicology, or Anthropology, or DNA testing.  I get that some cases go unsolved, and even the best of experts or techniques are helpless.

But if you present me with an example of a case that used a specific technique to become solved, I want to know exactly how our experts came to those conclusions.  Not just, "And then we used digital forensics to determine our suspect's guilt."  Okay... but what exactly was used, and what evidence was studied?  And how did that lead to a guilty verdict?

I can't really pinpoint where in the book, but this particular conclusion came about with each case example enough times for me to begin wondering about it.

Truthfully, I'd been fully intent on taking notes and posting updates about my thoughts on each chapter and subject.  And while other, outside circumstances kept me from being able to post updates, I also kind of gave up on taking notes because there didn't seem to be a whole lot of notes worthy of being taken.  I had added exactly one post-it note to the book, wherein I highlight (not literally) an all too well-known and common phrase that has always been associated with Forensic Science:  The Locard Principle--"Every contact leaves a trace."

So instead of fully enjoying the book after going into it with all sorts of interested excitement, I found myself more interested in the barely skimmed names and case examples that were brought up.  I started making note of some of these names and wondering if I'd have better luck learning about this subject by doing a bit of research on my own.  Because, at best, each chapter may be lengthy, but they certainly feel incomplete to me.

I'm left wondering whether or not I've missed part of the story somewhere.  I'm left wanting to know more about how certain conclusions came about.  I'm left with an unfinished story that had all the build-up and all the unwanted tangential tidbits, and no explanation of how that conclusion was come to.  I'm left with a list of names and cases that I now have to look up if I want more information, because my curiosity was piqued, but not satisfied.

This book took me over a month to finish reading.  Whether it was because of personal reasons or the book itself, I can't possibly say for sure.  But I felt like this book dragged, and yet gave little to satisfy my expectations.  There were a lot of generalizations, and what truly DID annoy me in each chapter was the great emphasis on how "THIS VERY TECHNIQUE" was what helped break a case wide open and convict criminals, and establish truth, and save babies...

It's been a very long time since I've had my last forensic science class, or my last criminal justice course.  But I'm not sure an entire case truly hinges on the test results of one specific branch of forensics.  I mean, I work in a hospital lab, and a patient's diagnosis certainly isn't based off of one particular test result, but instead should be concluded based on multiple factors.

Certainly, this isn't a terrible Introduction to Forensic Science book.  It's not really a science book, per se as there is very little science about it.  It might interest many other people who are into journalistic accounts of case files, Wikipedia style.  It may interest someone who simply wants a skimmed surface of the overall subject.

It will certainly get you wondering who all these names are that get brought up randomly.  And making notes of them in case you ever feel like you want more information.

Again, it just wasn't what I'd expected to get, and maybe that's the only fault in this reading experience.


16 Festive Tasks - Newtonmas

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