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review 2017-11-13 08:56
Forensics: The Anatomy of a Crime
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

I have so many thoughts about this book and they're scattered all over the joint.  

 

It occurred to me as I finally finished reading it that we sometimes come at books in much the same way faulty investigators come at a crime scene: we take in the initial information (in our case, the title, cover and jacket flap) and make assumptions as to how the book is going to play out.  If, as we start to read the book, it fails to fulfil our assumptions, we tend to then judge it on its failure to be what thought it would be, instead of judging it on what it is.  

 

The differences between investigating crimes and reading books are ... obvious and profound, but in the case of books, the blame lies squarely on poor marketing.  This book, for instance, has had two titles.  It's original on release was Forensics: Anatomy of a Crime (the edition I have) and then upon reprinting, it was named Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime.  It's former title is problematic, but not misleading.  Those that choose the book based on the latter I think are bound for disappointment, unless they know absolutely nothing about forensics, have only a general interest in it, and very little curiosity about the actual science involved.

 

I wanted the science.  I expected the science.  I wasn't expecting the very journalistic style of the narrative.  That part is on me, because I've never before read McDermid and didn't know about her background in journalism.  I really dislike the style of writing journalists do; in too many cases the narrative ends up with a sensationalist tone that feels manipulative and turns me off.  This book started off that way and had it not been for reassurances by friends that it would get better, I doubt I'd have continued reading it.  

 

Thankfully, I found the remaining chapters more palatable, and once I re-adjusted my expectations (i.e. this is not a science book) I was able to more or less find something interesting in each.  I also was left wanting though, too; she mentions the science, but never how it's done.  She doesn't explain why polymerase enzyme would make DNA 'replicate the hell out of itself', or how forensics scientists lift fingerprints from seemingly impossible places.  And I really had a problem with some statistics she included in the chapter on blood spatter/DNA, concerning the number of African-descent males in the UK vs US databases.  I'm not objecting to the veracity of it, but the writing in that section was so badly done that at first glance, it appears she's using her words to skew the reader's perception.  It took my husband and I 5 minutes of reading it and re-reading it before we decided it was probably just very terrible editing.

 

But there were lots of interesting bits too; with the right expectations, this would not be a wasted or disappointing read.  For those with an interest in true crime and history, this book might be a winner.  It's easy reading, the crimes she chooses are interesting (when they aren't horrific) and the book rarely drags.

 

At the end of the day, Forensics and the author would have been better served had they stuck with Anatomy of a Crime as a subtitle and marketed it as General Interest / True Crime*.  As such, I think it would have a found a very appreciative audience.  As it is, marketing it as a Popular Science book is setting everyone up for disappointment.

 

*Oddly enough, the publisher did list the subject as "True Crime", but then proceeded to use the back cover / page flap to sell the book as using "ground-breaking research" to "lay bare the secrets of this fascinating science".   

 

And finally, my husband asked that I include his complete annoyance with the flies printed on all the pages of the book; he didn't read it, but every time he saw me with it, he'd catch a glimpse of the flies and think I'd squashed one between the pages. If they insisted on persevering with that theme, at least vary the squashed insects...

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review 2017-11-07 18:25
Investigative Journalism and True Crime Writing Masquerading as Science
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

I had long rants going through my head on pretty much every page of this book while I was reading, but bottom line, it just doesn't deserve the attention of my detailing them.  I like McDermid's crime fiction (most of it, anyway) and I'd very much wish she'd stick to that in the future.  There is enough writing "for the effect", garnished with sweeping (moreover: repeatedly dead wrong) generalizations about the justice system and legal history in here to last me the next several years at the very least -- and the fact that this is the way she is writing about the one area that I know personally and in-depth only enhances my doubts about her writing concerning the areas with which I am less deeply familiar, and about which I would very much have liked to learn more.

 

As I said in my one and only status update, this isn't science writing -- not even popular science writing.  McDermid lists a number of science books in the bibliography at the end of this book, but there is no indication -- neither in foot- or endnotes nor in any other way -- how, if at all, the contents of those or other books, or other forms of research, personal knowledge and experience actually impacted her writing, are reflected therein, or would provide further information on specific topics that she addresses (by which I don't mean general areas and disciplines such as entomology or toxicology as such but individual aspects of these disciplines that she touches on). 

 

The only thing we may reasonably be assured of is that she talked to a number of scientists and (hopefully) renders the salient contents of their answers with a modicum of faithfulness.  Nevertheless, it is their statements she quotes, not her own independent research and knowledge, and obvioiusly, their answers only cover the topics she asked about, leaving plenty of questions both unasked and unanswered.  Hence, the actual scientific contents of this book is never more than skin-deep.  The vast majority of the book's chapters are a mixture of true crime writing à la Ann Rule and David Wambaugh on the one hand (including lavish, detailed, tabloid-style descriptions of the victims and their suffering), a journalist's description of the physical attributes of her interview partners on the other hand, and a historical and general introduction to the various areas of forensic science that, in any university program, wouldn't merit more than a few minutes' discussion and a recommendation for further reading at home.  Mind you, I'm interested in history, so I did enjoy the individual chapters' paragraph-(or-two-)long introductions dealing with the origins of the respective disciplines, but I most certainly could have done without the plethora of lengthy true crime narration and I also didn't need to know what McDermid's interviewees looked like.  With very few exceptions, I've learned more about forensic science in law school and by reading forensic accident reports in civil cases and pathologists' statements in criminal cases -- and, more specifically, about forensic anthrophology also by reading Kathy Reich's Tempe Brennan mysteries -- than from this book by Val McDermid.

 

On more than one occasion, there is not even any indication how McDermid selected her interview partners in the first place (what exactly do the attributes mean that she uses to characterize several of her interviewees in lieu of detailing their professional background, such as "eminent": who awarded these people those attributes, and on what basis precisely?).  Indeed, in several instances, there is every reason to believe that these just happen to be people she has come across in her day job as a crime fiction writer.  The Professor Bernard Knight she references, for example, is very likely the mystery writer and, according to his own standard short biographical blurb, former Home Office pathologist and professor of forensic medicine who since the early 2000s publishes the Crowner John mystery series and is one of the authors of the "Medieval Murderers" round robins (the first of which appeared in 2005); and the scientists she references from the University of Dundee were involved, last year, in an open university forensics project that used McDermid as a figurehead.  That doesn't mean, of course, that these people don't know what they're doing as scientists (in fact, the frequently plodding nature of Knight's fiction writing makes me suspect that he is probably a better scientist than fiction writer, and from what I saw of the Dundee open university project before I had to drop it due to other commitments, it looked both fun and informative) -- but if McDermid's book had the least bit of claim to being a genuine contribution to (if only: popular) science writing, she would openly state her connection with these sources.  (As an aside, it is not good journalism, either, not to have done so.)

 

Final note on the visuals of the specific edition that I read: I was initially pleased because the cover of this edition seemed to promise a relatively matter-of-fact approach without any recourse to showy effects.  Unfortunately, that proved to be the case with regard to this particular print edition as little as it is with regard to the book's substantive contents, as the fly making an appearance as the cover's sole illustration also makes an appeareance on the book's every single page, for purely "ornamental" purposes and without the slightest reference to the actual contents of those pages:

 

(Scans from the final 2 pages of the chapter on facial reconstruction.)

 

Can you possibly get any tackier -- in a book aspiring to a scientific contents, no less?

 

I read this as the November group read of the Flat Book Society and was planning to use it as my "16 Festive Tasks" book for the "Newtonmas" square: I'm going to leave it on that square provisorially on the basis of the occasional scientific bits contributed by McDermid's interviewees, but will very likely be replacing it by the December rogue Flat Book Society buddy read, The Science of Discworld.

 

 

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review 2017-11-06 08:00
A Place Of Execution
A Place Of Execution - Val McDermid

My first book from Val McDermid and it didn't disappoint me. I had seen the series with Tony Hill, but this isn't one of those.


I liked to see into one village so closed to strangers, I couldn't even believe there are actually places where people still live like that. I liked the plot, but sometimes it was a little bit slow and taking the speed out of it, which didn't make it easy to continue reading. It also had the doom to be my Holidaybook, and as I don't seem to be able to read whenever I'm on holiday, this might not have helped either.

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review 2017-11-06 05:48
Forensics by Val McDermid
Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

TITLE: Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

 

AUTHOR: Val McDermid

 

DATE PUBLISHED: 2014

 

FORMAT: e-book

 

ISBN-13:  978 184765 9903

 

_________________________

 

Forensics by Val McDermid takes a look at the variety of techniques and tools (forensic science) used by criminal investigators to solve a variety of crimes.  Topics surveyed in this book include: the crime scene and preserving evidence; fire scene investigation; entomology; toxicology; pathology; fingerprinting; DNA; anthropology; facial reconstruction; digital forensics; forensic psychology; and how forensics is presented in the courtroom. McDermid takes a look at how each of these techniques developed, the history behind the methods and how they are used or not used (mostly for cost reasons).

 

An interesting aspect that the author brings us is that there are no definitive rules or results. Every forensic conclusion can be stained with doubt and no single forensic test is the only conclusive evidence of guilt. Additional information can be also obtained from old evidence as scientific techniques progresses, specific analyses become more refined or new techniques are developed.

 

 

McDermid has a lovely, clear writing style and makes use of large variety of examples to elucidate the various topics she covers. I found this book to be somewhat interesting and to provide an introductory overview of the forensic techniques used to solve crimes. I did, however, want to read more about the actual science behind all the forensic techniques. This book is just too superficial.

 

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review 2017-11-05 15:57
Forensics by Val McDermid
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime - Val McDermid

It doesn't do what it says on the tin. The subtitle is "What bugs, burns, prints, DNA, and more tell us about crime" but it's actually more of a history of forensics. Unfortunately, it's a history of forensics that mostly tells of past cases in a disconnected fashion while occasionally dwelling far too long on one particular case. I don't need to have the victim physically described to me (i.e. chestnut hair down to her shoulders) if it's not relevant to the case. I really don't need to be told what victims of war atrocities were wearing so that they can be told apparent after they've been dug up. I didn't sign up for reading an account of the war in Kosovo. I'm not saying that books about wars don't have their place or that I wouldn't read them, but I just wasn't expecting this level of detail in a book about forensics.

 

And the funny thing is that even after giving all these extraneous details I don't want, she occasional drops names from a case without giving any details whatsoever. As if I'm supposed to know it. McDermid mentions that "Italy's trial of American Amanda Knox has highlighted both the difficulties of forensics in a contaminated crime scene, and the limitations of the inquisitorial system." And says nothing else about it. I may have heard the name before but if so, I've forgotten it. Grr.

 

The final chapter, the courtroom, had very little to do with forensics as I see it and just talked about how lawyers like to tear apart expert witnesses. I didn't think it was at all necessary.

 

At least this one was better than Gulp.

 

I'm not counting this book towards the Newtonmas book for 16 Festive Tasks because in my opinion, it's not a science book; it's a history book. I'll read something sciency to cover that square. If nothing else, there's always The Science of the Discworld, the Rogue Flat Book read for December.

 

Previous posts:

Chapters 6 & 7

Chapter 5

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

 

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