- - Tuesday, June 16, 2015



By Val McDermid

Grove Press, $26, 320 pages

Those who die the most violent of deaths are given a final voice in this odd and fascinating book.

Val McDermid is one of the most skilled of crime writers and she has gone a step beyond killing by writing with crisp authority on the facts that lie behind gruesome events. She notes that over the past 200 years forensic science has joined forces with justice to solve murder. She also compares the current state of criminal investigation with the almost insurmountable difficulties faced by the police at the scene of the first Jack the Ripper murder in London in 1888.

In that case, there was no obvious motive and no obvious suspect in the bloody slaying of Mary Nichols, she writes. The body offered evidence about the murder weapon and the state of a twisted mind, but none of it pointed in any decisive direction.

“Had the detectives had the skills and technology of a modern forensic investigator, the processing scene would almost certainly have led them to follow (Sherlock) Holmes ‘scarlet thread of murder’ inexorably to the man who killed those Whitechapel women in the dead of night. But without the most basic of scientific resources, the police were fumbling in the dark,” relates the author who has made forensic science the basis of her long career as a crime writer.

Ms. McDermid writes mystery fiction, frequently focusing on serial killers, and she has become convinced of the importance of forensic scientists who reconstruct the scene in which a crime takes place and penetrate the problems within the mind of the killer. Observing that a major character in her novels, psychological profiler Tony Hill, was the outcome of her study of forensic science, she expresses admiration for the capacity of such experts to deal with the darkest aspects of human behavior, spending hours in the sodden debris of a fatal fire, collecting maggots from a week-old corpse or even reconstructing the face of a mutilated child the same age as the scientist’s own daughter.

Such a scientist, she emphasizes, can use a blood stain “a millionth the size of a grain of salt” to provide a profile that can find not only the person it belonged to but also a member of their family who might also have committed a crime. The author contends that crime science evidence would not be as effective today if it had not been increasingly forced to pass the “strict credibility tests of the courtroom where very few holds are barred on the witness stand.”

Defining forensics as a form of legal evidence, the author sums it up: “This is what bugs, burns, prints, DNA and more does to tell us about crime.” She then launches into about 300 pages exploring differing forms of violent death, how the crimes were solved, and if they were not solved, why not. In the days of muzzle-loaded pistols, for example, a scrap of paper found in a head wound matched a wad of paper in the gun and brought about a guilty verdict. But in 1832 a man who killed his grandfather with arsenic in a cup of coffee walked free because the sample deteriorated and created reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

According to the author, every violent death has two primary sources: the crime scene and the body of the deceased. As one crime specialist put it, the crime scene is the silent witness to what happened there, and it is the starting point for the investigators as they build their cases. Arson investigations can be surprising, according to the author, because the arsonist may prove to be one of the fire team investigating the crime. In one case, it was an arson investigator with more than 20 years experience who wound up in prison for fire setting and murder without ever admitting what he had done. One of the clues in such cases is that the perpetrator usually is first to arrive at the scene of the crime. Arsonists, according to experts, frequently begin committing such crimes young, and become even more obsessed in later years.

Blood stains are especially interesting in tracking criminals, reports Ms. McDermid. She describes the case of insects that helped solve a stabbing case when suspects with sickles were lined up, and flies immediately pounced on one sickle where no blood had been found, but the smell of death remained. The killer confessed. Poisoning became almost a fashionable crime in Victorian times when a stylish wife would put a teaspoonful of sugared arsenic in her husband’s tea.

Numbers of victims could be stunningly high. One doctor was believed to have killed 210 of his patients, and a rapist was held responsible for 40 victims.

The author credits increased skill in psychological profiling as contributing to the arrest of murderers and notes the case where a profiler was intrigued by the mother of a missing child who kept pushing away another of her children while she was being interviewed.

Ms. McDermid observed, “The better we understand these strange universes that our fellow human beings occupy the closer we may come to fixing them before they leave a trail of destruction in their wake.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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