Saturday, 27 February 2021

Guest Review: Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime By Val McDermid

The dead talk. To the right listener, they tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died - and who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help justice to be done using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene or the faintest of human traces.

Forensics draws on interviews with top-level professionals, ground-breaking research and Val McDermid's own experience to lay bare the secrets of this fascinating science. And, along the way, she wonders at how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine 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 uncovered the victims of a genocide.

In her novels, McDermid has been solving complex crimes and confronting unimaginable evil for years. Now, she's looking at the people who do it for real. It's a journey that will take her to war zones, fire scenes and autopsy suites, and bring her into contact with extraordinary bravery and wickedness, as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.



Review: Val McDermid is an award-winning crime fiction writer, but this book is a factual account of the range of forensic science disciplines that are employed to assist law enforcement agencies in the investigation of crime, and courts of law in the administration of justice. As a former forensic scientist myself, I was very interested to read this book, which was first published in 2014.

Each of the chapters covers a different discipline, such as: fire examination; forensic entomology; toxicology; forensic psychology; DNA; fingerprinting; and forensic anthropology. There is an introduction to the history of each discipline followed by a discussion of the developments leading to the present. This is accompanied by interviews with leading practitioners in the various fields, along with descriptions of case histories that illustrate their discipline. I found these aspects the most interesting, knowing of, and having worked with, some of the individuals concerned. The book’s final chapter covers court procedure and the presentation of scientific testimony. There is a discussion regarding whether the adversarial system, as practised in courts in the United Kingdom and the United States, as opposed to the inquisitorial system, as practised in continental Europe, is better for seeking out the truth.

I found this a really interesting and well-researched book, and it shows the level of research to which the author must go in her fictional work. I should add a care warning. I listened to the audiobook version, which is narrated by a lady from Scotland. For the bulk of the book, this is entirely appropriate since the author Val McDermid is also from Scotland. However, when voicing the various practitioners interviewed for the book, the narrator puts on various bemusing accents (her attempt at a cockney accent must be second only to Dick Van Dyke’s in the film “Mary Poppins”). As already stated, I  know some of those individuals, and was very surprised to hear the words of one of my former work colleagues, who if my memory is correct hails from Nottingham, spoken with a posh southern English accent. If you would find this distracting, then I would recommend reading the book rather than listening to the audio version. I was more amused by the inappropriate accents, so it didn’t detract too much from a very detailed account of forensic procedures.

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