Forensics, it seems, has been around for a while.

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About CrimeForensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid

Val McDermid is of course that well known crime fiction author of the same name, and this book is a brisk, crisp narrative interspersed with harrowing, you-are-there crime scenes, fascinating details, heartrending stories and a bunch of on-point commentary from present-day forensic scientists at the top of their game. “The story of forensic science,” she writes in her preface

of that road from crime scene to courtroom, is the stuff of thousands of crime novels. The application of science to the solving of crime is the reason I am gainfully employed.

There is nothing like personal interest to juice up a narrative and this book is fully juiced. McDermid marches us through the history of crime solving, beginning with a handbook for coroners written in China in 1247, which “contained the first recorded example of forensic entomology–the use of insect biology in the solution of a crime.” Yes, seven hundred fifty years ago, a Chinese coroner conducting an investigation into a murder deduced the murderer by watching to see which sickle the flies landed on. It had been washed, but the flies knew, and the murderer confessed on the spot. Forensics, it seems, has been around for a while. Try 44BC, when Julius Caesar’s doctor reported on which of JC’s 23 stab wounds was the fatal one. (Only one was.)

Contrast that to the present day, or at least 1982, when

…Kary Mullis, a Californian surfer and LSD enthusiast who went on to win the Novel Prize in Chemistry. In 1982 Mullis was driving along Highway 128 when he had a revelation. If he added an enzyme called polymerase to DNA it would, in his words, ‘reproduce the hell out of itself’. Using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), Mullis could take a very small amount of DNA and make it significant enough to interpret. Before long, scientists were using PCR to understand criminal cases that had been cold for up to seventy years, as well as the genealogy of fossilised dinosaurs and buried royalty, and the diagnosis of hereditary diseases…Whether it was a speck of dead skin, the sweat from a fingerprint or the dried saliva from a postage stamp, the required amount of bodily substance had spiralled down from the size of a ten pence piece to one millionth of a grain of salt.

CSI, Law and Order and their numerous clones have habituated us all to associate the word forensics with individual murders or at least individual murderers. McDermid’s chapter on forensic anthropology and the identification of the desaparecidos of Argentina show how much wider the scope is in real life.

Between 1976 and 1983 Argentina was ruled by a miitary junta which took violent and repressive action aginst those it considered left wing or subversive…As many as 30,000 civilians were victis of the ‘Dirty War’, and around 10,000 were among the ‘disappeared’…In 1986 Clyde Snow, an experience forensic anthropologist who had worked on the Kennedy assassination and the victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, came from the US to train the founding members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. ‘For the first time in the history of human rights investigations,’ explains Snow, ‘we began to use a scientific method to investigate violations…The idea of using science in the human rights area began here, in Argentina, and it is now used throughout the world.

In Kosovo in 1997, a grenade blew up the family of a farmer fleeing the fighting. He collected as many of the bones as he could find and buried them together in a sack. Eighteen months later British forensic anthropologist Sue Black arrived in Kosovo to collect evidence for the UN International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

The farmer asked her to dig up their remains and bring him back eleven body bags, so he could bury each one separately…After eighteen months, decomposition had done its work and most of the material she had to deal with was bone. The adults were relatively easy to distinguish from one another because they were bigger and there were fewer of them. The eight children were much harder. Sue painstakingly separated the fragments. After several hours she had identified the six youngest children. All that remained were two sets of upper limbs, which had belonged to 14-year-old twin boys. ‘There was nothing else of them. Just humeri and clavicles. But one of the sets of upper limbs was attached to a Mickey Mouse vest. I said to a police officer, “Go and ask the dad which of his children liked Mickey Mouse.” An hour later Sue brought the twelve body bags to him. ‘That’s what he wanted more than anything. Giving him his family back was the absolutely and utter least we could do, considering what he’d been through.’

Any man’s death diminishes me. John Donne wrote it, but the forensic scientists McDermid writes about are living it. Recommended.

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