Brooke Magnanti reveals the truth behind real forensics and fictional forensics - and books to it better

The forensics student turned crime writer Brooke Magnanti on fiction’s credibilty gap

Brooke Magnanti
Sunday 21 February 2016 17:38
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Real forensic science is nothing like fiction. There, I said it. Even though I was inspired as a kid by watching episodes of Quincy, M.E., and Forensic Files is my guilty pleasure, it’s time to come clean. The morgue is not glamorous. The cases are not cut-and-dried. It is a truth, though not yet one universally acknowledged.

The first time I saw an autopsy, in the morgue in Sheffield where I was a newly enrolled doctoral student, I fainted. The bright lights, the smell, the fresh body on the table, it was all too much. I woke up on the floor with a pathologist holding my welly boots aloft while the staff suppressed giggles. But this was usual, they assured me. Almost everyone faints or vomits the first time. Glossy, this ain’t.

As my studies progressed, I graduated from newbie researcher to grumpy old-timer. Medical students came through on placement, mostly surprised at how workaday and spartan the department was.

When they asked questions about how someone died, the answer was never as clear-cut as they perhaps would have liked: unlikely to make an easily ticked box on an examination paper or assessment.

That mismatch between what we would like to believe and the reality is almost the defining characteristic of forensic science. So much of what forensic scientists know is anecdotal, based on direct experience and cases they’ve seen before, and yet the explosion in interest in the field demands that these things be quantified and measured, the better to evaluate the effectiveness of the field, the better to teach the huge influxes of new students. It is no wonder novels so often get it wrong.

In general, books do it better than TV and film. Many forensic scientists have themselves become authors, such as Kathy Reichs and Debra Komar. They bring to their work decades of education, of nuance – something blockbuster movies and one-hour dramas simply cannot capture.

Other authors rely heavily on scientists to read over their work and ensure that the details ring true. With the demanding and dedicated audience that crime novels attract, it’s as much a necessity as it is a courtesy.

As a former researcher in forensic science, I relied heavily on my own experiences for my new novel The Turning Tide, especially the scenes set in a mortuary. But memory is fallible, so I asked some ex-colleagues to read early drafts and give their feedback.

Staying on top of the science is a must in this field. Val McDermid, for example, consults on occasion with Professor Sue Black, a human identification expert in Dundee. Nobody can just assume that reading a few books gives them complete insight into forensic science, and the discipline is also rapidly changing.

It helps that in a book, the bright lighting of the mortuary is an asset, not a problem as it is for lighting directors and camera operators. Smells can be described in ways other than cute actors wrinkling their noses when a body bag (white, not black, thank you very much) is opened.

The meticulous, sometimes downright slow, process of identifying a body and how it met its end can be respected.

In a time when forensic experts are hardly thin on the ground, it’s amazing how much television can still trip up. Recently I was surprised when watching From Darkness on the BBC.

It was a beautifully shot, well cast mini-series that suffered from, well, how to put it? Lack of attention to detail. Would bodies cleaned with strong hydrogen peroxide solutions have been easily defleshed? You’d think so if you watched this, but no, destroying soft tissue is not a straightforward process of chucking liquid at someone.

And even if so – would the bodies still have had their clothes intact and identifiable? Again, no. Anne-Marie Duff’s huge, sorrow-filled eyes as she surveyed the crime scenes could have been mine, weeping for the Beeb’s oversight in not getting more forensic advisors on board.

Probably the single biggest mistake in taking a forensic drama from script to screen or page is not making bodies wet enough. Humans are about 80 per cent water by body weight, and yet, fiction would have you believe we all turn into dusty, mummified shells shortly after death, easy to pack into a crawl space or attic.

A dead body is tough to disguise in a closet or bedsit, in part because of the liquid mess. The process of decomposition not only smells … it drips. It puddles. It pools, in colours from red to green to brown to black. If you have ever wondered what will death be like, I can’t speak about the philosophical, but I can tell you this much: it will be damp.

Last year, being the 20th anniversary of Patricia Cornwell’s seminal Postmortem, her books were reissued. Does the forensic work stand up? Admittedly, a lot has changed in the technology – the prevalence of DNA databases, for example.

Some of the methods described were no longer current when I was a student and it provides an interesting snapshot of the time.

But there are also jarring moments when things come together too smoothly, too quickly, in a way that doesn’t wash. Anyone who has sat up all night to babysit a polymerase chain reaction machine can testify that even new methods aren’t instantaneous and the lab is unlikely to force any particular samples to the front of the queue.

Whereas Kathy Reichs, the grande dame of forensic anthropology, rarely missteps in her books, the adaptations of her Temperance Brennan novels can play fast and loose with the details. The original books are a must-read, which is unsurprising, given that Reichs is also the author of respected textbooks on the subject of human identification.

The reality is that when biometrics fail, lives are affected. Scottish police detective Shirley McKie’s family fought a decades-long battle to have her cleared of perjury after her career was destroyed by a partial fingerprint in 1997.

UK and US courts have no minimum standard for fingerprint comparison, and expert witnesses can make many mistakes. The ideal of science – objective observation and reporting – is a stark mismatch with the standards of evidence that are deemed acceptable by courts of law.

And yet, anyone saying so, until recently, was met by blank faces from the forensic science establishment, not to mention the general public.

In part, this may be because we have been misled by fiction. But the reality is probably far more prosaic. We are attracted to stories with arcs, tales with neat endings, and fables in which the bad guy is apprehended before he gets away with it again.

The fact that real life and the movies don’t always match up means that fantasy forensic science on screen, however well it is crafted, will always have a place in our hearts.

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