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review 2017-12-31 18:51
A great book about a fascinating historical period and one of the forefathers of forensic science.
Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor & the Dawn of Forensic Science - Helen Barrell

Thanks to Pen & Sword, particularly to Alex, for offering me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

As a doctor, a writer, and an avid reader of crime fiction (and spectator of crime films and TV series) when  I read the description of this book I knew I had to keep on reading. Although my studies in Criminology included a basic history of the discipline, this book offers a very detailed look into one of the main figures in the early times of forensic science, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor. The author, Helen Barrell, uses her expertise in history and genealogy to research his biography and investigate the legacy of this fascinating man. As she states:

This is both Taylor’s biography and the story of forensic science’s development in nineteenth-century England; the two are entwined. There are stomachs in jars, a skeleton in a carpet bag, doctors gone bad, bloodstains on floorboards, and an explosion that nearly destroyed two towns. This is the true tale of Alfred Swaine Taylor and his fatal evidence.

I found the book riveting. Not only the biographical details (and, as a doctor, I was intrigued by his studies, and by how complicated it was to study Medicine at the time. In fact, becoming a surgeon and becoming a medical doctor involved a very different process in the early XIX century, and although now the degree combines both, their origins were completely separate), but, especially, the in-depth study of his close involvement with forensic science, his passion for the subject, and his total dedication to ensure that forensic evidence was rigorous and given the importance it deserved in criminal trials. He produced books on the subject that were updated and continued to be published well into the XX Century and his expertise as a chemist, photographer, and defender of public health made him a well-known and respected figure. On the other hand, he was not the easiest of men, he did not tolerate fools gladly, he was a staunch supporter of unpopular measures (banning certain products containing arsenic, for instance, or introducing a register of the purchase of poisons), and he held grudges that found their way into his writing, and perhaps made him not receive the recognition others did (he was never knighted, while some of his peers were).

The book follows Taylor’s life in chronological order, and although it delves more into his professional life (the cases he gave evidence in, other cases of the period he advised on, his teaching, his books), it also talks about his wife, and how she was fundamental to his books, as she helped him organize and compile the cases, about the children they lost, his friendships and collaborations… We get a good sense of the person behind the scientist, but it is clear that he was a man dedicated to his work, and it is not so easy to differentiate the public from the personal figure.

The book is written in an engaging way, it flows well, and the author provides enough detail about the cases to get us interested, making us experience the tension and the controversies of the trials, without becoming bogged down in technicalities. And, despite her historical rigour, the author’s observations showed subtle hints of humour on occasions.

The chronology and all the cases he worked on help give us a very good idea of what crime was like in the period. Having recently read some other historical books (many published by Pen & Sword as well) about the era, it manages to create a great sense of how easy it was to buy poison, how difficult it was to detect crime (even confirming if a red stain was blood was very complicated), and how dangerous everyday life could be (wallpaper contained colours filled with arsenic). Some of the cases are still remembered to this day, but Helen Barrell offers us a new perspective on them. This book would be a great addition to the library of anybody interested in the history of the period, especially the history of crime detecting and poisons, and also to that of writers of crime novels who want to know more about forensic science and its origins.

The last chapter includes a summary of some of the ways Taylor influenced crime writers, including Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers (who either created characters based on him or used his books as reference). I am sure many writers will feel inspired anew by this book, especially those who write historical crime fiction. There is also a detailed bibliography and notes that would help anybody interested in finding more information about any of the cases.

As the author writes in her conclusion:

Alfred Swayne Taylor is one of the ancestors of modern forensic science: he is part of its very DNA.

A great book, of interest to anybody fascinated by crime detecting and its history, to readers of the history of the period, and to writers (and readers) who love crime historical fiction. A fascinating historical figure and a well-researched and engaging book that gives him some the credit he deserves.

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review 2015-07-25 04:02
The mind of a monster
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

I discovered this book through reading To Kill a Mockingbird namely because my bookclub mentioned that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were quite good friends (and Capote even dedicates this book to her at the beginning). Anyway, I also thought the title was really cool (and Capote sounded like he was some Chicago mob boss – though I am probably getting him mixed up with Capone) that when I was scouring through the book shop later that week I was keeping my eye out for this one (and since it is one of the Penguin reprints it wasn't all that difficult to find). As it turns out this is the second best selling true crime novel of all time (though I can't quite remember where I saw that quoted, nor do I know which novel sold more than this one).


In Cold Blood is probably best described as a psychological exploration into the minds of a couple of brutal killers, though much of the psychological exploration doesn't come about until the last chapter. The story focuses around two young men who broke into the house of a wealthy Kansas farmer and, upon finding that there was nothing in the way of valuables inside, proceeded to kill him and his family. The actual murder occurs at the beginning of the book and the rest tells the story about the investigation, the trial, and finally the culprit's final years on death row.


I guess the question that Capote is asking is how can a human being sink so low as to brutally murder four innocent people, and then not feel any shame or guilt about it afterwards. Many of us would simply not give a second thought about the murderers and simply write them off as animals that should be kept away from society for the rest of their lives (or even executed, not that I am a big fan of the death penalty, even in situations such as this). I guess the temptation when reading such accounts is to feel some empathy for the culprits, and since the story is now separated from our time by decades, the impact of such a murder is significantly lessened. Reading this book in 2015 as opposed to being present during the years in which the murder occurred and the culprits were on trial (as well as being separated geographically by the Pacific Ocean), the impact of the crime is substantially less, at least for me. Further, in the modern world where criminals undergo intense psychological examinations it is easy to say that they had a bad childhood, they never had a significant father figure, or it had something to do with their mother.


As I was reading this book it does become clear that the culprits never seemed to have had a normal family life, and in fact never seemed to have had any discipline in which they were told that to act in such a way was wrong. However, when Capote introduces another inmate on death row – this one having grown up in a loving family and was attending university – we discover that this lack of any significant role model is not necessarily the cause of somebody becoming a brutal murderer (this particular inmate murdered his own family simply because he wanted to inherit the estate, though Capote suggests that the reason for this was because he was a social outcast and believed that if he had money then he would be accepted amongst his peers).


It is interesting how the idea of 'the perfect murder' that seems to permeate detective novels never really comes about in real life. With regards to the Clutter murders, the culprits never travelled all that far from the scene of the murder, despite the fact that the investigators were convinced that they could quite easily have disappeared. In fact after they had committed the murders they simply went back to their lives, not that their lives involved the repetition of going to work every day – they were simply drifters who travelled from town to town committing crimes simply so that they could continue their meaningless existence. As for the other murderer, we are told that he had come out with this elaborate plan to poison his family and then burn the house down, before settling on simply gunning everybody down and attempting to blame the deed on some unnamed robbers (though he ended giving himself up when his pastor gave him the fire and brimstone speech).


I must admit that I do find criminology quite interesting, and it was one of my favourite subjects at university (though half the reason that I took the subject was because a part of it involved going on a tour of a couple of the local prisons), and it raises the question of what causes the guilty mind to work. I guess this is one of those questions that continues to plague criminologists, and it is easy to put the actions of these individuals down to social and psychological dysfunctions. This I believe is the case, however by equating the actions of murderers with some psychological (or sociological) disease doesn't no much to ease the pain that the relatives and friends of the victims go through when these people act in such a manner, especially when it comes to murder.


The thing with murder is that it is so final – they are simply don't come back. However, that does not necessarily mean that other crimes of violence are any less bad. The thing with crimes of violence is that they leave scars – whether it is physical or psychological – and it is not necessarily on the immediate victims either. Friends and families can also be affected by crimes of violence, and even though the scars may heal with time they do not necessarily go away. Psychological scars can never really be solved by the victim simply 'getting over it'. These scars can continue to haunt the victim even decades down the track – in a way they are never the same again. Crimes of violence can even leave psychological scars on the culprit as well, particularly with the concept of the guilty mind. Guilt can be quite powerful, and in some cases this guilt never goes away. The culprit can be burdened with this guilt for the rest of their lives. Sometimes guilt can force the culprit to hand themselves in, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the knowledge that they have 'got away with it' can override that feeling of guilt to the point that the perpetrator can commit such crimes without even acknowledging that they have done anything wrong. In some cases there are even people that simply don't even acknowledge that what they were doing is wrong, and I suspect that this is what Capote was trying to explore in this book.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1337449018
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photo 2015-03-21 15:42
"But she was so nice and quiet!"
Source: twitter.com/carlahaunted/status/579299627641401345
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text 2014-10-14 18:07
Books read: September, 2014
Boy Toy - Barry Lyga
The Paper Magician - Charlie N. Holmberg
Tell the Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt
Abarat: Absolute Midnight - Clive Barker
Legion (Exorcist, #3) - William Peter Blatty
A Rage to Kill and Other True Cases - Ann Rule
Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields - Wendy Lower

18 books read, 144 read year to date


1 reread, 1 new favorite


Best new fiction:

  • Boy Toy
  • The Paper Magician (Paper Magician #1)
  • Tell the Wolves I'm Home
  • Abarat: Absolute Midnight (Abarat #3)


Best new non-fiction:

  • A Rage to Kill and Other Stories: Ann Rule's Crime Files vol. 6
  • Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields


Favorites re-read:

  • Legion (Exorcist #2)


New favorite:

  • Abarat #3
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-09-20 03:46
The psycholigical torment of a murderer
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

While the title can be a little misleading, the actual form that the punishment takes in this novel is the psychological effect of the guilty mind. The social punishment that the protagonist, Raskolnikov, undergoes appears only in the epilogue, where he is sentenced to eight years in a penal colony in Siberia, though we are given a glimpse of some of the hardships that he undergoes. However, the true punishment that the novel explores is the unmitigated guilt that dominates Raskolnikov's mind and the physical sickness that results.

I read somewhere that the story begins with the perfect crime, however, for some reason, I can never picture an axe murder being a 'perfect crime'. Maybe it has something to do with the modern perception of axe murderers, something that does not necessarily seem to fit our protagonist. While on the outside it seems that the murder of the pawnbroker is, in a way, perfect, one thing Dostoyevsky seems to insinuate is that Raskolnikov could not escape the guilt that had come about because of his actions. Okay, he begins by attempting to justify his actions – sort of a Robin Hood scenario where he kills a rich miser with the intention of distributing her money to the poor, but as it comes out this never happens. In fact the money that he does find (and he doesn't get all that much money from her in the first place) spends the entire novel hidden under a rock. Even then, with the whole idea of a Robin Hood style crime, I sometimes wonder if we, as humans, are ever able to overcome our greed by willingly distributing our ill gotten gains.

Much of the novel involves the investigation of the murder and the detective, Porfiry Petrovich, has a hunch in relation to who the murderer is, though he does not have any solid proof. It is not so much his investigation that is the focus of the novel but rather Raskolnikov's response to the investigation. He knows he is guilty, and this guilt is burning up inside of him, but another aspect is holding him back from confessing: the fear of the social punishment that he must face if he confesses. That is the catch: while he refuses to confess he undergoes a psychological punishment which in and of itself is much greater than any social punishment he can endure. It seems that this psychological aspect even prevents Raskolnikov from killing himself.

It is clear that Dostoyevky's Christianity comes out in this book, especially with the reference to the story of Lazarus. In that story Lazarus dies and Jesus comes along and brings him back from the dead. While Lazarus died simply because he was mortal, Dostoyevsky seems to suggest that we all undergo some form of death, and while we are encased in that death we live in torment. It is only through the redemptive power of Christ that we are able to escape from that torment, as is reflective in the story when Jesus calls Lazarus back from the dead. Rostkolnikov clearly takes the role of Lazarus, and it appears that it is Sonya that is the Christ figure in the novel. Sonya is the first person to whom Roskolnikov confesses, and when he finally confesses to Petrovich and is sentenced to eight years in Siberia, Sonya travels with him as a reflection that Christ will also travel with us once he has released us from our bondage.

Anyway, that is enough of the Christian allusions in the novel because I wanted to explore something else: the idea of the guilty mind. Here Dostoyevsky connects the guilty mind with the act of murder (and a pretty gruesome murder at that) but sometimes I wonder whether he actually understands the reality of the situation. The reason I say that is because there are murderers out there that do not seem to be effected by the guilty mind, and with that I point to individuals such as Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. They seemed to be able to kill people yet feel no guilt with regards to their actions. Yet, on the other hand, we have soldiers who are given an authority to kill by their respective governments yet suffer immense psychological trauma when they attempt to return to civilian life from war. This phenomena is explored not only in Greek literature, such as Heracles Furens but also in a modern literature, such as Achilles in Vietnam (though the second book does draw upon the Illiad).

In speculating on this I do not want to go down the road of the street corner drug dealers, or those who commit property crimes such as frauds or burglaries, because those crimes do not seem to have the same effect on the psyche as a murder (though this is not necessarily always the case because I have known people who have been shoplifters and have been so overwhelmed with guilt that they have confessed to the owner of the shop). Some have suggested that a part of human nature is repulsed at the killing of another human being, which is what I suspect Dostoyevski is exploring here, because it is not so much the theft that is of concern, but the fact that Roskolnikov murdered the owner of the money with an ax.

Anyway, that is probably enough of Dostoyevski for the time being (other than the bookclub on Sunday), though I still intend on reading some of his other works, such as The Gambler, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and of course Notes from the Underground.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1050846336
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