Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime, by Val McDermid

Val McDermid is a Scottish crime writer and creator of what’s come to be known as “Tartan Noir”. One of her best-known characters is psychologist and profiler Dr. Tony Hill. She’s also known for fairly violent procedurals.

In this book she takes a turn at non-fiction with a look at how forensics works in real life including some bits of history on how some procedures were developed. The book covers a lot of the science of forensics as well as field work. She describes how forensic specialists work a crime scene, with detailed interviews of specialists. She then expands out to cover subjects like fingerprinting, blood spatter analysis, DNA, autopsies, profiling, and even works in how forensic specialists prepare for testimony in court.

It’s a broad and interesting overview of the work with examples from both well-known and obscure crimes of the past few centuries. She covers the successes and the shameful shams of some investigators. Many of those shams or examples of what was thought to be start of the art until they failed in court have helped to bring even greater professionalism to the field, leading to greater caution and precision as well as tempering some techniques that are more art than science. As an example she details the careful balance in giving medical examiners just enough information while trying to avoid accidental bias.

Some of the writing can be pretty gruesome, especially passages about the number of rabbits beaten to develop information on blood spatter. But some of the interviews are especially interesting and even inspiring with insights about some of the most dedicated investigators working today. For anyone who loves crime novels or has stayed glued to CSI or Bones this is an illuminating book.