Nigel McCrery, ‘Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science’ (2013)

indelible evidenceI’ve long been fascinated by forensic science, an interest that stretches back to my pre-teens and watching Quincy M.E. on a Monday night. I also vividly recall a 1980s TV series called Indelible Evidence, where Ludovic Kennedy introduced dramatisations of real-life cases solved using various forensic techniques. One extraordinary episode centred on a half-eaten apple, left at the crime scene. The bite marks were distinctive enough to allow scientists to reconstruct not only the man’s teeth, but also his whole skull and facial appearance.

These sorts of extraordinary – but true – stories are in abundance in Nigel McCrery’s book. McCrery’s own background is as a policeman; leaving the force, he subsequently joined the BBC where he was behind the creation of several successful programmes, including (surprise, surprise) Silent Witness. So as well as knowing the subject inside out, McCrery is well used to making complex subjects understandable, and this is one of the strengths of the book. It is also arranged clearly, with each chapter dealing with a different branch of forensics. Thus there are sections on identity (which includes the struggle to identify habitual criminals, and the introduction of techniques such as fingerprinting), ballistics (from which I learnt that the calibre of a handgun is measured in hundredths of an inch), blood (describing the difficulty, 150 years ago, of distinguishing human and animal blood) and trace evidence.

edmond locardOf all these the last perhaps sounds least interesting, but I found it fascinating. It is here that we meet one of the founding fathers of modern forensics, Edmond Locard. Born in Lyon in 1877, he was responsible for founding France’s first police laboratory. Using the most up-to-date equipment and techniques, Locard was able to analyse tiny samples – of soil, fabric, metal – and use them to assist the police in catching the culprits.

In several cases, it’s incredible the amount of information Locard is able to glean from such trifles, bringing to mind ‘the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen‘, Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, it was Holmes who partly inspired the young Locard to follow his profession; and I’d be interested to see what his memoirs say about his fictional counterpart, titled as they are Policiers de roman et policier de laboratoire (Detectives in Novels and Detectives in the Laboratory). Locard’s work was so ground-breaking that his influence is still felt today. He lends his name to Locard’s Exchange Principle – ‘Every contact leaves a trace‘ – which is a particularly apt subtitle for this book.

One of the grimmest chapters concerns the human body. When dealing with a murder, it is often the victim that can offer the greatest number of clues to the identity of the killer – not just because of who they are, but also because of any physical evidence that may have been left behind. This chapter also demonstrates just how far the investigation of serious crime has come over the last 200 years, and how differently a body is dealt with and treated by the authorities today.

One particularly gruesome case involves the eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (who was involved in a number of landmark cases during his career, including Dr. Crippen and the infamous ‘Brighton Trunk Murder’ – a name to conjure with, for sure). Spilsbury was shocked to visit a crime scene, and witness ‘police officers having to remove rotting flesh and body parts… with their bare hands.‘ This was less than 90 years ago, and Spilsbury’s outrage lead to meetings with the Home Office, and the more formalised management of crime scenes. The wider use of specialist equipment and materials was also adopted, to ensure that vital forensic evidence was not lost.

silent witnessesThis was always going to be an easy book for me to read, and I particularly liked the way that its arrangement meant you could easily dip into and out of it. In some cases, there was the feeling that McCrery was trying to pack too much in; a longer appraisal of fewer cases would have been welcome. There were also a few obvious typos, which I found irritating and (in a couple of instances) somewhat confusing. But these shouldn’t detract from what is a really well-written and researched book, perfectly designed for the Quincy or Sam Ryan in your life – especially as the festive season is fast approaching. Just one word of advice – if you do buy it, I’d probably delay starting it until after you’ve finished the Christmas dinner.


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