6. Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid

IMG_6270My 52 Books Challenge has crawled to almost a standstill, and I can only put this down to picking long books that require concentration! Thankfully, the next two on my list promise to be much quicker, so hopefully I’ll have some reviews up for you sooner rather than later!

My 6th book is another foray into non-fiction, unusual for me, but it covers a subject matter I have quite a bit of interest in. Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime does what it says on the tin. It looks at how the study and detection of crime has evolved in the last few centuries, thanks to scientific and technological advances.

The book is written by esteemed British crime writer Val McDermid, and is all the better for it. This material has the potential to be dry and overwhelming in its technicalities, but she brings it alive with a powerful narration and a clever weaving together of past cases in history with contemporary interviews with specialists in their field. She has written this in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection, who are currently running an exhibition with the same name at the Collection’s headquarters near Euston. It’s free, and runs for a few months yet. Ben and I visited the other day, and the post about our trip will be up soon. It was a more gruesome, 3D version of the book, just FYI…

A word of warning: if you have no interest in either crime or forensic science/technology, there will be literally nothing for you here. I found it fascinating, and a lot of people surely will, but if you don’t want to know how the lifespan of maggots can point to the date that a person died, or how forensic anthropologists pieced together the bits of bodies from mass graves of the war dead in Kosovo, then this is not for you. The book will take you from the Stardust Disco Fire in 1980s Northern Ireland, to the Buck Ruxton murder case in 1930s Scotland, and even glances over the infamous Jack the Ripper case. History and contemporary science weave into and compliment each other throughout, and you will enjoy the insight of the people behind the leaps and bounds in forensic science; such as the woman who identified a paedophile based purely on the vein patterns in his hands.

The chapters are broken up into the various disciplines such as pathology, toxicology and fingerprinting, and looks at the strengths and weaknesses in each discipline, as well as their history. I felt continually bombarded with facts, and struggled to keep it all in! This book is almost like a little encyclopedia all in itself. You can dip in and out of it at will, the different chapters can be read independently, although obviously you can read it all through as a continuing journey. It’s thrilling to see how far criminal investigations have progressed, although it is also frustrating to look back at the mistakes and oversights that relying on forensics will do without a substantial case to back it. As with all major criminal investigations, the book starts with the crime scene and ends with the courtroom.

This is a very short review, but I find it difficult to review non-fiction, as I mentioned in my review of Jane Hawking’s autobiography, because it’s so different to the structure of a novel. I found Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime a bit gruesome but utterly absorbing. Val McDermid writes with flair and style, and makes the topic truly accessible to the reader, whatever your level of background knowledge. If you’re looking for something a bit different, this could be right up your street. And don’t forget to check out the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection if you’re in London. And just remember the Locard Principle: “Every contact leaves a trace.”

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