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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.