In this fascinating explanation of the techniques of forensic science, Val McDermid takes readers on an “evidential journey” that begins at the crime scene and ends in the courtroom. McDermid, a Scottish crime fiction writer and former newspaper crime reporter, turns out to be a remarkably intelligent and witty guide for a tour of such gruesome subjects as blood spatter, DNA analysis, toxicology exams and forensic entomology, a discipline that McDermid writes, mordantly, is “based on one grisly fact: a corpse makes a good lunch.”
In each chapter of Forensics, McDermid’s approach is to narrate a short history of the discipline in question, weave in the views of contemporary investigators, then offer a procedural step-by-step on how a fire scene investigator, for example, would gather evidence to determine the cause of a fire. None of this is ever formulaic, because, as McDermid writes, “it takes a sensational case to establish a new forensic technique in the public consciousness.” And McDermid is particularly good at illustrating Forensics with quirky, sometimes spine-chilling cases that were solved because of a particular technique of forensic investigation.
Did I say solved? Another enticing aspect of Forensics is the skepticism McDermid brings to these investigative sciences. It’s a skepticism shared by the best current practitioners, who now couch their interpretations of data in language not meant to dazzle juries so much as contribute to the search for the truth. But, as McDermid’s final chapter about expert forensic testimony in the courtroom points out, our adversarial justice system is sometimes more about winning than arriving at the truth.
This is a sobering end to a riveting book that armchair sleuths and anyone interested in the inner workings of crime detection will want to read.