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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Crime Fiction on the Dissection Table - Val McDermid and Sue Black, 14 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Hazel McHaffie

A few of my own novels introduce elements of crime, but I'm way out of my depth on such matters. I've been hugely indebted to the police for inside information as to procedure and techniques used in the unravelling of what happened, and the detection and apprehension of the perpetrators of these acts. So I was particularly keen to attend a session with a true expert in forensic anthropology in discussion with an award-winning internationally acclaimed crime writer. Promised to be a winning combination.

Forensic science may be a regular part of our popular culture, thanks to novels, television and films, but developments in the world of pathology and understanding of DNA and related technology proceed apace. Experience in the field leads the scientists on; computerisation speeds the processes up. Weaving today's possibilities into a novel can make it out of date tomorrow. Criminals catch up and learn how to avoid incriminating behaviours too. So how do authors keep up?

Not by following programmes like CSI, we were told, which have given the public an erroneous idea of the ease and speed with which these processes work. Authority for this statement came from the Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, Professor Sue Black, who comes with a wealth of experience in the identification of bodies in places like war-torn Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, following the tsunami in Thailand. She's keen to debunk the myths about forensic investigation, to show people the reality of what happens in a crime/accident scene, demonstrating the meticulous process of pulling together the various clues to what actually happened. And she has a remarkable facility for reducing complex science to understandable and graphic images and language.

Couple her with her great friend and sparring partner, Val McDermid, well known for her 'tartan noir' novels, with their graphic depictions of violence and torture, and you have a recipe for an hour of hilarity as well as wisdom and illumination of the topic of forensic medicine. Both are colourful characters with a huge sense of fun.

We learned so many astonishing facts. Did you know that an embalmed pubic scalp looks like 'tinned tuna with hairs on it'? Or that a body retrieved from a bog after 200 years looks like a 'leather bag with a face on it'? Or that the back of one's hand is as unique as a fingerprint? Or that it is possible to tell from bones and teeth where in the world your mother was when she was pregnant with you? Or that when someone gets a tattoo, some of the dye is deposited in the lymph nodes so that even if the limb is cut off, it is possible to say unequivocally this person had a tattoo which was X, Y and Z colours?

McDermid visibly latches onto these facts and her brain conjures stories … So if a tattoo is inscribed post-mortem, there'd be no dye in the lymph nodes … Black instantly comes back: she had such a case in reality. 

How does Sue Black cope with all the macabre things she sees? By professionally distancing herself. Her job is to see, to analyse, to present evidence to a court. In order to do so, she must 'be in a clinical box', not identifying with the subjects of her scrutiny. She comes across as a consummate professional, totally at ease with what she does. Though she's anything but complacent. She's conscious of the dangers if society gets to a place where it doesn't doubt the science of her field. It's perfectly possible now to deliberately plant the DNA of an innocent person at a crime scene. She demonstrated that by wiping her hand on the chairman's shirt, by making him leave his fingerprints on a glass. She also reminded the audience that pretty much everyone has their DNA recorded somewhere. The Guthrie test, for example, carried out for all babies at birth since the 1960s, was used to identify many victims of the Thailand tsunami. And familial connections using the DNA of relatives are used to convict in some cases. All these realities raise serious questions about the balance between civil liberties and crime resolution.

Novelist and anthropologist have a healthy respect for each other's work. McDermid takes her responsibility to 'give the dead what they are owed' seriously. She knows her books would be facile without a deep interest in why her characters do what they do; talking to a forensic expert gives her access to the reality of crime, investigation and conviction, and ideas for unusual elements based in reality. For her part, Black admires the level of detail authors go to to authenticate their work, and the respect this demonstrates for readers. She wants the science to be correct, and sees educating people as part of her role. But together they have cleared restaurants with their intense, graphic (and we suspect merry) discussions of what scenario would give as much blood as possible? What would a body look like if it had been immersed in a cask of whisky since 1948?

But recently McDermid has been given an opportunity to give something back for all the help the forensic scientists have given to crime writers. Dundee University, where Black is based, needs a new state of the art morgue where bodies can be embalmed using modern techniques to keep them flexible. She was promised a million pounds if she could raise a second million. She turned to her crime-writing friend for help. McDermid's approach is robust: we shall almost all require surgery at some stage in or lives; we want the surgeon to be as nifty with the knife as possible; let's give him excellent corpses to learn on, not something that 'resembles a three-day-old turkey'. Together they are campaigning to raise that sum - details at www.millionforamorgue.com. For £1 anyone can vote for the new institution to be named after their favourite crime writer (anyone but Lee Child 'because you can't have a Child's Morgue'!). There's also a Killer's Cookbook due out in October.

Altogether a fascinating and instructive hour, well spent at the Book Festival.

(Session funded by The Wellcome Trust)

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