Date finished: August 30th 2015
It always proves compelling when an author delves into a subject you don’t expect them to. That’s a slight overstatement when it comes to this work by one of the most popular contemporary crime authors, Val McDermid, but the crime novelist has taken a different turn by swapping fiction for fact and writing an academic book on her favourite subject.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, is an enthusiastic and passionate leap into a subject McDermid is more than familiar with as both an author and former journalist. The book explores the various techniques that we have employed to catch criminals of all kinds, charting their history from as far back as ancient China, their subsequent developments over the decades and centuries, and the most important and strange cases that they were used to solve.
As you’d expect from a crime author, the book doesn’t shy away from all the grisly details, and McDermid positively revels in some of the weird and wonderful cases that have occurred, like the mystery of who kept committing arson when all the fire investigators were at conferences, or a murder that no one was aware had even happened until it was solved by the discarded pupae of flies.
Techniques familiar to the public such as blood spatter analysis, thanks to shows like Dexter, are explained and elucidated alongside lesser-known methods such as anthropology (the intimate analysis of how the human body pieces together, and the unenviable task of having to re-piece it when it’s been destroyed) and digital forensics (from tracking a criminal’s path through the GPS in their phone or turfing up incriminating evidence in their internet history).
Forensics is to its subject matter what Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything was to the history of science: a fantastically-written, effortlessly accessible and limitlessly informative take on a topic written by an inquisitive and dedicated mind.