My interest in pathology probably began when I heard about a Death Row inmate being beaten to death by fellow prisoners when I was on a night shift in 1980. I remember phoning up a nurse and asking about the victim’s injuries…the morgue became a place of fascination for me.
Not just a place of fascination, but the source of a vast canon of crime fiction. Before she was a novelist Patricia Cornwell was a crime journalist, and her fascination with the morgue floods through her work. She isn’t alone in this and today I’d like to reflect on the use of medicine, science and forensics within the crime fiction genre.
The godfather of the police procedural, Ed McBain, used forensics extensively in his 87th Precinct novels, and this modern manifestation of forensics in crime fiction has at its heart a desire to reveal both what happened at the crime scene, and also what happens in the morgue. In doing this it shifts the literary power base away from the detective, and onto a pathologist, or some similarly white-coated expert. The character of Dr Kay Scarpetta was first introduced by Patricia Cornwell in Postmortem (1990). The shifting power base that Scarpetta represents can also be felt throughout the genre in the form, most obviously but by no means exclusively, of Jeffrey Deaver and Lincoln Rhyme, Kathy Reichs and Temperance Brennan, and Tess Gerritsen and Maura Isles. This shift is also felt on the screen with the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise and indeed the onscreen portrayal of Temperance Brennan in Bones.
To focus on forensics is to shift the story onto the crime itself and away from the motivation of the killer. In Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (2003), Ronald R. Thomas touches on the development of three key devices of truth – the lie detector, the mug shot, and the fingerprint. Modern science has evolved to the extent where its role in solving crimes is more formal and more accepted than it has been historically precisely because these key devices of truth did not previously exist. Golden-age crime fiction writers didn’t concern themselves overly with the cause of death, or the precise nature of the crime, probably because the further back in time you go, the more difficult it becomes to use science, forensics and medicine as literary tools. Put simply, there wasn’t a lot of it about. Not for Agatha Christie the world of DNA, fingerprints and post mortems. She relied on a whim, fancy and good old fashioned intuition. She never concerned herself with the perfect crime or the poison that couldn’t be detected. She wanted to explore the threads that held the genre together, and what’s more, she wanted to destroy them. This isn’t to say, however, that golden-age writers were ignorant of the methods used by more modern investigators. The tools, perhaps, but the detailed analysis of a crime scene, the assimilation of every possible piece of evidence, no matter how small or insignificant, all form the central tenets of the greatest detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle created a character who, in many ways, was ahead of his time. Holmes was using fingerprints (The Sign of Four, 1890) as a means of identification long before this practice was adopted by Scotland Yard at the turn of the century. Although not specifically medical in the sense of what shows like CSI portray, Holmes and his understanding of things like handwriting (The Reigate Squires, 1894) and different typewriter settings (A Case of Identity, 1891) is distinctly forensic in nature. In this regard, Conan Doyle was blazing a trail that others still follow. The complaints you hear today that regard the credibility of CSI and the fact that science and technology aren’t actually as portrayed on the screen are precisely the complaints directed at Conan Doyle in the 19th Century, except perhaps without the on-screen presence of Ted Danson.
That aside, writers cannot expect to shift focus onto forensics and immediately attract a large and loyal readership. This has always been true, just replace forensics with an offshoot, or major genre development, and writers have always faced the same problem. Good crime stories need good characters. Without them, whatever the genre, they won’t work. The theme of forensics is a worthy footnote in the ongoing evolution of the crime fiction genre. But it is not, on its own, enough to sustain the genre. If you remain unconvinced about whether forensic crime fiction can be every bit as compelling and character-driven as more traditional crime fiction, then try this,
The murderer is a tall man, left-handed, limps with the right leg, wears thick soled shooting boots, and a gray cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar holder, and carries a blunt pen-knife in his pocket.
Not from CSI, but from The Boscombe Valley Mystery, a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle published in 1891. Distinctly forensic, distinctly traditional.