DETECTIVE FICTION

How some crime writers are making the lives of forensic scientists a nightmare

Detective stories are showing that forensic evidence isn’t always conclusive, but no one likes hearing that.

A blackmailer steals a compromising letter from a woman of high standing. The police know he is keeping this letter in his home, but they cannot find it. Using the latest forensic tools they search every inch of the apartment, recording their efforts as follows:

“We examined the rungs of every chair…and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly.

A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing – any unusual gaping in the joints – would have sufficed to insure [sic] detection.”

Back in 1844, this description of the police using a powerful microscope with the promise of instant detection would have dazzled readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Yet this is not what solves the mystery. Instead, the private investigator, Auguste Dupin, correctly surmises that the best place to hide such a letter is in plain sight. He finds it on the blackmailer’s mantelpiece.

The story is one of the earliest and best examples of crime fiction. It suggests that science and technology are sometimes not as powerful as empathy or intuition in solving crimes. Indeed, Poe queries science throughout his writings. In one poem he calls it a vulture that preys on the poet’s heart, replacing the magic of a writer’s imagination with its “dull realities”.

Try telling that to modern readers of crime fiction. These days, forensic scientists are one of the great staples of the genre. They are integral to everything from popular TV franchises like CSI and Line of Duty to blockbuster names like Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver to many of the works showcasing at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. There is also something about their incredible achievements that we often overlook: they are often a long way from the reality.

Criminal comforts

We love crime fiction because it is reassuring. Yes, human beings are capable of evil and cruel deeds, but criminals are always caught and usually punished. This formula, as WH Auden suggested in a 1948 essay on the genre, restores us to a “state of grace”. It helps us believe we are basically innocent and good, and that criminality is an aberration.

Forensic science amplifies this sense of comfort in crime fiction: it produces evidence that cannot lie; it brings the most cunning of criminals to justice. In a world with no god and no certainty, these fictional scientists fill a void. They let us think that our world can be examined, analysed and rendered legible. They are modern-day magicians whose wizardry reveals indisputable truths.

Val McDermid | Image credit: Fenris Oswin, CC BY-SA
Val McDermid | Image credit: Fenris Oswin, CC BY-SA

But does forensic science really hold all the answers? Sadly, no. Val McDermid, one of the big names appearing at Bloody Scotland, is one of the few authors who help us understand this. In Out of Bounds (2016) for example, the police are trying to determine whether a man was murdered or shot himself.

The amount of gunshot residue in his hand is inconclusive, we learn, and not inconsistent with a self-inflicted wound. How can scientific evidence be inconclusive? How come scientists talk of things being “not inconsistent”, rather than dealing in certainties?

This is where the trouble begins for forensic experts. Imagine a scientist giving evidence as a witness in court and having to explain the limitations of their field. Jurors are unlikely to appreciate that forensic evidence often relies on human interpretation; that blood spatter patterns or bite mark analysis do not tell a single, compelling and unambiguous story the way they do in books.

Yet the reality of the uncertainty of forensic science was recently laid bare in relation to the DNA laboratory of the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner. Seen as one of the most sophisticated forensics labs in the world, carrying out work for investigators across the US, certain scientists are now claiming some of its methods are unreliable. A group of prominent New York defence lawyers is calling for the inspections watchdog to carry out an investigation.

Meanwhile, America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology recently accused the forensics industry of lagging other professions when it comes to looking into and resolving errors. It said:

“In recent years, high visibility errors have occurred at crime labs in almost every state. These have ranged from simple mistakes, such as mislabelling evidence, to testimony that overstates the scientific evidence, to criminal acts.”

In thrillers, forensic evidence almost always leads the investigative team to a satisfying conclusion. We never finish a novel thinking the killer might be exonerated when the evidence is re-examined. Even when all is as it should be, forensic scientists have their work cut out trying to communicate the complexity of the evidence, while explaining how it might be both subjective and reliable at the same time.

Not perfect | Image credit: zoka74
Not perfect | Image credit: zoka74

To make their case, scientists need much more than hard facts. They need to make their expertise accessible by using similes, metaphors and narrative examples. In fact, they need to be a little like novelists – which is ironic given that they have to dispel some of the misconceptions created by novelists in the first place.

If there is a consolation in any of this, these experts can at least thank novelists for their public image. No matter how hard they have to work to seek and communicate knowledge, at least forensic scientists will always look glamorous while doing so. They might be the victims of our need for reassurance and certainty, but we don’t tend to treat them with the same hostility as Edgar Allan Poe.

Aliki Varvogli, Senior Lecturer in English and Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching, University of Dundee.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.