Forensic Mysteries Analysis

The Forensic Sciences

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although almost any science or technology can be applied to criminal investigations, a limited number of established professional areas have found their way firmly into both fiction and fact. They primarily deal with three areas: the study of human remains in forensic medicine or forensic anthropology, the study of criminal behavior in forensic psychology or profiling, and the examination of evidence, or criminalistics. Criminalistics uses a variety of scientific processes to answer questions relating to biological evidence; trace evidence; impression evidence, such as fingerprints, footprints, tire tracks, and bloodstains; controlled substances; ballistics; and other evidence. Criminalistics often plays a crucial role in the resolution of investigations that are regularly reported in the news media and depicted in mystery fiction.

Although the forensic sciences have been used to investigate almost every conceivable type of crime, from theft and fraud to kidnapping and assault, the type of crime most commonly investigated in mystery and detective fiction is murder. Among the most common specialties in the forensic sciences pertaining to murder investigations are these:

Forensic anthropology—application of physical anthropology to identify bodies and causes of death

Forensic ballistics—science of identifying firearms and ammunition

Forensic entomology—examination of insect evidence surrounding human remains to determine conditions of death

Forensic graphology—handwriting analysis

Forensic odontology—study of teeth for identification

Forensic pathology—analysis of causes of death

Forensic photography—accurate photographic reproduction of crime scenes

Forensic psychology and psychiatry—legal aspects of human behavior or criminal profiling

Forensic sculpting—facial reconstruction

Forensic toxicology—study of the effect of drugs and poisons

Forensic Science in Early Mystery Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mystery fiction has often dealt with legal matters and investigations from a legal standpoint, using primary characters who have some official standing in government law enforcement. As such, logic, reason and observation are all at the core of mystery and detective novels. The role of the forensic sciences, in life and in fiction, is to provide objective, reasonable, and factual accounts of events based on the scientific method. Evidence used in forensic investigations is even more objective than that obtained from verbal testimonies and witness statements, as it uses physical evidence that is uncolored by human perception. It is in this way that forensic science is distinct from traditional legal and investigatory efforts, and it is a commitment to identifying hard facts that typifies forensic scientists.

Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the modern detective story, was also the first author to bring science into play within mystery fiction. Although his works are typically permeated with deep psychological and philosophical meanings, his detective stories demonstrated the fundamental principles of scientific observation in criminal investigations. His detective, C. Auguste Dupin, declares that his “ultimate object is only the truth.” Poe’s use of scientific evidence is especially evident in his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which contains long statements from forensic experts, such as Dr. Paul Dumas, who testifies on the conditions in which the bodies of several murder victims were found. He describes the settings and the nature of the bodies’ wounds and offers his analysis of the causes of those wounds in clinical yet graphic detail. Poe’s language heightens the effect:The throat was greatly chafed. There were several deep scratches just below the chin, together with a series of livid spots which were evidently the impression of fingers. The face was fearfully discolored, and the eye-balls protruded. The tongue had been partially bitten through. A large bruise was discovered upon the pit of the stomach, produced, apparently, by the pressure of a knee. In the opinion of M. Dumas, Mademoiselle L’Espanaye had been throttled to death by some person or persons unknown.

Poe’s descriptions of scientific investigations and techniques detailing the investigations of Dupin are archetypal of the role that forensic science plays in...

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Forensic Science in Hard-Boiled Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The early twentieth century saw the use of forensic science in mystery fiction in a more macabre and sardonic fashion. In earlier mystery fiction forensic science was looked upon with skepticism until it could demonstrate its usefulness in uncovering truths. The turn of the century heralded a more cynical view, one in which the motivations of detectives were not as transparent or altruistic. The new hard-boiled detectives did often employ elements of forensic science, but not always to reveal truths and solve crimes. At times, they put their scientific expertise to work to cover up crimes, misdirect law enforcement, or protect their own interests.

Dashiell Hammett, a writer whose name is almost synonymous with hard-boiled detective stories, is best known for his Sam Spade stories, including The Maltese Falcon (1929-1930), which was made into a classic film with Humphrey Bogart. However, he also wrote several novels about another private investigator, one known only by the name the Continental Op. One of his Op novels, Red Harvest (1927-1928) makes extensive use of elements of forensic science. Characteristic of Hammett’s other writings, it is gritty and violent, with a morbidly clinical description of the Op’s waking up to find a corpse in his bed:Not much blood was in sight: a spot the size of a silver dollar around the hole the ice pick made in her blue silk dress. There was a bruise on her right cheek, just under the cheek bone. Another bruise, finger-made, was on her right wrist. Her hands were empty. I moved her enough to see that nothing was under her.

Ironically, the unemotional starkness of the Op’s...

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Forensic Science in the News and on Television

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Toward the end of the twentieth century, mystery writers began building their plots around forensic scientists themselves. In many stories, lines between real-life cases and fiction are blurred, as authors have looked to crime news to get their plots. True-crime stories have always captured the public’s interest, and sensational stories in the news have increased that interest. Events such as the murder trial of former football star O. J. Simpson, the unsolved murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, and the disappearance of the pregnant California woman Laci Peterson have whetted the public’s appetite for more information about the forensic sciences.

Television has played an important role in the popularization of the forensic sciences. The trend started in 1976, when a dramatic series titled Quincy, M.E. began its seven-year run on television. That program, in which actor Jack Klugman played a strong-willed medical examiner named Quincy, strove for dramatic effect, not realism. In a typical episode, Klugman would examine the body of a person believed to have died from natural causes, find evidence of foul play, and then proceed to solve a murder case. The early twenty-first century has seen a profusion of more realistic television programs focusing on forensic sciences whose very titles describe their content: Profiler, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-    ), CSI: Miami (2002-    ), and CSI: New York (2004-    ), NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Service; 2003-    ), Without a Trace (2002-    ), and Criminal Minds (2005-    ).

Shows such as these have changed public perceptions of what forensic science can do in real life—a phenomenon dubbed the “CSI effect.” The change has had such an impact on the criminal justice system process that judges have had to give juries special instructions about what constitutes acceptable evidence to modify their expectations.

Forensic Scientists as Protagonists in Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although forensic science has played a role in mystery fiction for more than a century and a half, it is only since the late twentieth century that it has moved to center stage in the creation of primary characters who are professional forensic scientists. Indeed, what has been called forensic mysteries may be the fastest-growing subgenre in mystery fiction. Many of these new leading characters are medical examiners, coroners, and forensic pathologists, but there are also numerous mysteries featuring forensic geologists, forensic psychologists, and even forensic hematologists and forensic sculptors. Although depictions of the techniques used in the forensic sciences in mystery fiction have evolved, descriptions still tend to be painstakingly detailed and morbid in their objectivity.

People have long had a fascination with the mysteries of human bodies and what happens to them when they are victims of violent crimes. Interest in the role of science in mystery fiction was made more prominent with the popularity of medical thrillers, which may have been the harbinger of the more pronounced role that forensic science later assumed in mystery fiction. Similar elements can be found in both specialized genres. Protagonists in medical mysteries are generally medical professionals, and their stories are typically centered around hospitals or medical facilities. Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, and Michael Crichton brought medical mysteries into eminence: Cook’s Coma (1977) and Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) captured the public’s imagination, even on the big screen.

Ann Benson, Leah Ruth Robinson, and Tess Gerritsen have cast physicians as their protagonists, while Eileen Dreyer has written numerous novels about trauma and forensic nurses. Benson’s novels tend to be more epic, both in the nature of their crises and in their settings. She regularly weaves together plots set in...

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Forensic Anthropologists

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Forensic anthropologists analyze skeletal remains for purposes of identification and investigation of legal questions. They tend to focus on osteological evidence, and their preference for bones, and consequent aversion to softer tissue, is alluded to in several mystery novels, including those of Aaron Elkins and Kathy Reichs. In 1982, Elkins introduced forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver in Fellowship of Fear. By 2007, the series had reached fifteen titles and inspired a short-lived television series, Gideon Oliver (1989), starring Lou Gossett, Jr. Popularly known as the “Bone Detective,” Oliver is also a university professor who travels throughout the world and demonstrates his considerable knowledge about skeletal cuts, osteological growth, and environmental impacts on bones.

Kathy Reichs, who is sometimes called “next Patricia Cornwell,” introduced her own forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan, in Déjà Dead in 1997 and averaged nearly one new book a year over the next decade. (Many of her titles use the word “bone.”). Brennan and Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta are in different fields but otherwise have much in common. Scarpetta is a medical examiner in Virginia, while Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who splits her time between North Carolina and Montreal. The problems Reichs creates to challenge Brennan’s knowledge and skills are varied and imaginative, and Brennan gained a wider following when her stories were adapted to television in the Fox series Bones, which debuted in 2005.

Beverly Connor created not one, but two series about forensic anthropologists. There are marked differences between between her two series characters, Lindsey Chamberlain and Diane Fallon. Chamberlain is both an archaeologist and a forensic anthropologist who specializes on Native Americans of the Southeast. Fallon is a museum director and human rights investigator. Sharyn McCrumb also has a popular series about Elizabeth MacPherson, a forensic anthropologist who appears in such colorfully titled books as PMS Outlaws (2000) and If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him (1995).

Forensic Psychologists and Profilers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry are similar specialties whose differences parallel those of their parent professions. Psychiatrists have medical degrees with specialized training and are licensed. Psychologists hold doctoral degrees and may also be licensed. Profilers may or may not have similar credentials; their focus is on creating psychological descriptions, or profiles, of criminal wrongdoers, based on evidence collected in investigations of criminal incidents. James Patterson’s forensic psychologist, Alex Cross, is a former detective for the Washington, D.C., police who now works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a senior agent and profiler. His investigations take him all over the United States to track down serial killers and find kidnappers.

In Thomas Harris’s sensational 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling, an FBI agent in training, is assigned to ask convicted serial killer Hannibal Lecter for assistance in profiling and catching another serial killer. A doctor of psychiatry, Lecter is a talented profiler himself. He uses his profiling skills to assist the FBI but only after profiling Starling for his own gratification.

Caleb Carr’s novels marry science fiction to psychological mystery. The Alienist (1994) is commissioner Lazzlo Kreisler, a late nineteenth century psychologist who diagnoses, profiles and treats the severely “alienated,” or criminally insane. In this novel and its successor, The Angel of Darkness (1997), Carr creates an alternative history and psychological thriller, with Teddy Roosevelt playing a police commissioner and appearances by other historical figures, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Clarence Darrow.

Jonathan Kellerman’s popular clinical psychologist, Alex Delaware, acts regularly as police consultant for assisting with victim counseling, witness statements, and profiling. Delaware counsels victims and examines crime scenes, looking for motives and details that might lead to the identities of the criminals. Kellerman focuses on victimology and motives in many of his works, but in ways that humanize the victims. Kellerman’s wife, Faye Kellerman, also writes mysteries with elements of forensic science, but her primary characters are homicide detectives.

Forensic Science in Contemporary Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The use of forensic science in mystery fiction has become so common that it has become a subgenre in its own right. As such, it has developed characteristics and conventions of its own. One of its most common characteristics is clinical and often gruesomely detailed description of murder scenes. Such graphic representations of the results of violence were present in the earliest mystery fiction, from Poe to Doyle, and are commonplace in the works of modern authors. However, writers of forensic mysteries tend to use exotic and sensational modes of death and convoluted motives more than other mystery writers.

Fictional forensic scientists are often portrayed as intellectuals who are firmly entrenched in observation and...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Frank, Lawrence. Victorian Detective Fiction and the Nature of Evidence: The Scientific Investigations of Poe, Dickens, and Doyle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Critical look at the role of science in these authors’ novels that also discusses the philosophy and technology of the world in which nineteenth century writers lived.

Gerber, Samuel M., ed. Chemistry and Crime: From Sherlock Holmes to Today’s Courtroom. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1983. Useful look at chemical processes and materials used in forensic science from historical, literary and practical perspectives.

Hein, E. K....

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