Review of Val McDermid’s “Forensics: The anatomy of crime”

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Val McDermid, apparently an author of some standing as a writer of untrue crime novels, has written a true crime walkthrough of forensics topics interweaving real-life cases and comments. The fine selection of topics has no overall progressive narrative to such an extend that most of the chapters may have been permuted without loss of coherency. If there is a base for the book it is a fascination and awe for modern forensics. She is a good writer. Perhaps her crime novels has trained her in writing clear prose. She delves not into academic technicalities that could perhaps have been interesting.

She has based her book on other books as well as a good number of interviews with a broad range of forensics experts. A few of these comes from the University of Dundee: Forensics chemist Niamh Nic Daéid and forensics antropologist Sue Black.

I find McDermid view of the fallibility of forensics balanced drawing forth cases where presumed experts lack self-critique. Bernard Spilsbury and a U.S. ballistic expert Thomas Quirk are critized. For Roy Meadow, McDermid presents aspects of the tragic Sally Clark case that I do not recall having read before: The appeal was not prompted by Meadow’s evidence but by Pathologist Alan Williams that had failed to disclose blood test results. I do sometimes find popular science writing lack an appropriate level of critique to the material. McDermid is one of the better writers, but I do find one case where she oversteps the confidence we should have in science. Here is what she writes on page 164: “We already know, for instance about the existence of a ‘warrior gene’ – present mainly in men – which is linked with violent and impulsive behaviour under stress”. When I read “We know” I get mad, and when I read ‘warrior gene’ I get extra mad. Behavioral genetics is a mess full of red herrings. Recent meta-analysis of the warrior gene polymorphism MAOA-uVNTR and antisocial behavior (“Candidate Genes for Aggression and Antisocial Behavior: A Meta-analysis of Association Studies of the 5HTTLPR and MAOA-uVNTR“) reaches a 95% confidence interval on 0.98-1.32, while, interesting a very low p-value (0.00000137). The strangeness of difference between confidence interval and p-value is discussed in the paper and presently walks over my head. What seems reasonable certain is the loads of between-study heterogeneity. Any talk of warrior gene needs to acknowledge the uncertainty.

There are certainly more elements to forensics than McDermid presents. A Danish newspaper has recently run a story about cell phone tower records used in courtroom cases. A person carrying a powered cell phone reveals his/her location, – but only with a certain exactness. Cell phones may not necessarily select the nearest cell tower. From my own experience I know that my cell phone can select cell towers in other countries from where I am located, e.g., my cell phone in Nordsjælland in Denmark can easily select a cell tower in Sweden 15 to 20 kilometers or more away and my cell phone in Romania switched to a Ukrainian cell tower perhaps 20 kilometers or more away. U.S state Oregon has seen the case of Lisa Marie Roberts that on her bad lawyer’s advice pleaded guilty in 2004 because of critical important cell tower evidence. In 2013 she was freed.

I was struck by one of the stories presented that originates from the book of criminal lawyer Alex McBride. A surveillance camera records a case of apparently straightforward violence, but McBride is able to get his client off by threatening to use another part of the camera recording showing a policeman mishandling a person in a case of wrongful arrest. The prosecution dropped the charge for the original case. It does not seem fair to the victim of the original crime that the criminal can go free just because another crime is committed. To me it looks like a kind of corruption and extortion.

(Review also available on LibraryThing)

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