Forensics For Dummies Updated 2nd Edition is now available.
Get it through your local Indie Bookstore or here:
Forensics For Dummies Updated 2nd Edition is now available.
Get it through your local Indie Bookstore or here:
The Mystery Readers Journal Forensic Mysteries Issue is out and it’s excellent. Filled with wonderful and informative articles by some really fun folks. Janet always does such a wonderful job and this issue is a testament to that.
If you don’t belong to Mystery Readers International, you should.
Details and links to join are here: http://mysteryreaders.org
Here is my contribution:
THE QUESTION I GET
Every writer knows that creating an engaging and believable story is the primary goal of fiction writing. Taking readers into the story world and holding them there isn’t all that easy. And making basic errors in fact can all too often snap the reader right out of the story. A writer’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
I have been consulting with authors and screenwriters on medical and forensic science story issues for the last 20 years and over that time have answered around 6000 questions. I am constantly amazed by the creative mind of an author. This is particularly true in the crime fiction and thriller genres. Equally impressive to me is that these are the authors who do the research, who try to get it right.
So, what are the most common things that I get asked? Poisons and rendering someone unconscious for varying periods of time are near the top of the list.
Many great murder mysteries, past and current, deal with poisons. Why not? They’re excellent tools for fictional murder. They require no physical confrontation and can even be set up so that the deed occurs days, weeks, or months later, when the perpetrator is far away. Clean and simple. No mess to clean up.
But poisons do possess limitations. Let me dispel one myth right up front—-there are no untraceable poisons. It might not be found but if it is looked for diligently enough and with the available sophisticated techniques, it will be found. Common poisons such as narcotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, and sedatives of various types are part of virtually every drug screen and therefore are easily found by the toxicologist. Others such as plant toxins, and many unusual chemicals, are more difficult. These require that the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist have a high “index of suspicion” that a particular toxin is involved before taking the time and expense required to uncover it. These suspicions are often aroused by the symptoms that surround the victim’s death.
Often, for plot reasons, the author would like for the victim to receive the toxin but not have any symptoms until the next day and then suffer a quick and dramatic death. The problem? Poisons don’t have timers. Those that kill quickly and dramatically do so quickly and dramatically. Right here and right now. Not tomorrow, or next week. There are of course toxins that require several days to work their mischief but the victim almost invariably will become ill and spiral toward death over a period of time not suddenly collapse on cue.
In other scenarios, the author needs for a character to be struck in the head and to remain unconscious for an extended period of time. You’ve seen it before. The character is whacked on the head, placed in the trunk of a car, taken to some remote hideaway, remains unconscious for hours, and finally awakens when someone throws water in her face. Hollywood has been doing this for years. Unfortunately, medical science dictates that this is extremely unlikely. A blow to the head that causes unconsciousness but without significant brain damage is called a concussion. Boxers face this with every bout. The key here is that there is no significant brain damage in a simple, single concussion. The victim might go out but usually awakens very quickly and certainly by 10 or 15 minutes. Think about that boxer. He gets knocked unconscious and two minutes later he’s complaining that he was struck with a lucky punch. In order for the victim to remain unconscious for hours, there must be some degree of brain injury. A cerebral contusion (brain bruise) or an intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding into or around the brain) are two situations where unconsciousness can last for hours, days, or much longer. But here, the victim is truly injured and typically requires medical treatment in short order. A simple splash of water won’t do it.
So as you sit at your desk pounding out your next story, don’t assume that what you believe to be true is indeed true. This is particularly problematic if you don’t have a scientific background or if you get your understanding of science from television. Do your research. Seek out credible sources, Ask questions. Never underestimate the power of the word author. People like to talk about what they know so give them the opportunity.
Regardless of how you do it, get the facts right. That’s your job. And your readers will greatly appreciate it.
Just got the new cover for Forensics For Dummies, 2nd Edition.
It will be released from Wiley on 2-29-16
BIO: Kathy Reichs’s first novel Déjà Dead catapulted her to fame when it became a New York Times bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Her other Temperance Brennan novels include Death du Jour, Deadly Décisions, Fatal Voyage, Grave Secrets, Bare Bones, Monday Mourning, Cross Bones, Break No Bones, Bones to Ashes, Devil Bones, 206 Bones, Spider Bones, Flash and Bones, Bones Are Forever, and Bones of the Lost, and the Temperance Brennan e-short, Bones In Her Pocket. In addition, Kathy co-authors the Virals young adult series with her son, Brendan Reichs. The best-selling titles are: Virals, Seizure, Code, and Exposure, along with two Virals e-novellas, Shift and Swipe. These books follow the adventures of Temperance Brennan’s great niece, Tory Brennan. Dr. Reichs is also a producer of the hit Fox TV series, Bones, which is based on her work and her novels.
From teaching FBI agents how to detect and recover human remains, to separating and identifying commingled body parts in her Montreal lab, as a forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs has brought her own dramatic work experience to her mesmerizing forensic thrillers. For years she consulted to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and continues to do so for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec. Dr. Reichs has travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on Genocide, and helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala. As part of her work at JPAC (Formerly CILHI) she aided in the identification of war dead from World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Dr. Reichs also assisted with identifying remains found at ground zero of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Dr. Reichs is one of only eighty-two forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. She served on the Board of Directors and as Vice President of both the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and is currently a member of the National Police Services Advisory Council in Canada. She is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Dr. Reichs is a native of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. at Northwestern. She now divides her time between Charlotte, NC and Montreal, Québec.
Kathy Reich’s Website: http://kathyreichs.com
Kathy Reich’s Blog: http://kathyreichs.com/category/blog/
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Kathy-Reichs/e/B000APED9E
Kathy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kathyreichs
Kathy on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kathyreichsbooks
In any homicide, one the most important things, along with the cause and manner of death, that the ME must determine is the approximate time of death. This will help eliminate some suspects—-if they are far away from the scene and with many witnesses, for example—-and point the finger at others—-who might have been in the area at the time the murder occurred.
The problem is that most methods used to determine the time of death are inaccurate at best. They tend to be best guesses. And they are mostly useful only during the first 48 to 72 hours.
Check out my article “Timely Death” for a brief overview of how the time of death is estimated.
Or grab a copy of Forensics For Dummies or Howdunnit: Forensics for an in-depth discussion of this topic.
Researchers at the University of Salzburg are working in a new method that might allow the time of death determination to be accurately made up to 10 days after death. Their research suggests that measuring the rate of muscle protein degradation yields a clue to the time that has lapsed since death. If this technique proves to be accurate and reproducible in humans, it would be a giant step forward in criminal investigations.
Join Jan Burke and me as we discuss bugs and bodies with forensic entomologist Dr. M. Lee Goff.
BIO: Dr. M. Lee Goff is one of the founding members of the American Board of Forensic Entomology, from which he retired in 2013. Professor Emeritus, in Forensic Sciences at Chaminade University of Hawaii and Dept. of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Hawaii, Manoa,, he received his B.S. in Zoology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1966, M.S. in Biology from California State University, Long Beach in 1974, and Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1977. He was Professor of Entomology and Chair of the Entomology Graduate Program at University of Hawaii at Manoa from 1983 until 2001. He then moved to Chaminade University of Honolulu as Director of the Forensic Sciences Program. Dr. Goff has been involved in forensic entomology for a period of over 25 years. He is currently a consultant in forensic entomology for the Office of the Medical Examiner, City and County of Honolulu and other state and federal agencies throughout the world. He also serves as a consultant for the crime dramas CSI and Bones. He is curator of a traveling museum exhibition called CSI: Crime Scene Insects.
Additionally Dr. Goff has served as a member of the instructional staff for the FBI Academy course in Detection and Recovery of Human Remains taught at Quantico, Virginia. He has published over 200 papers in scientific journals, authored the popular book, A Fly for the Prosecution, co-edited the recent publication “Advances in Forensic Entomology” and participated in over 350 homicide investigations, consulting on cases worldwide.
Professor Emeritus Goff’s faculty Page on Chaminade University’s site https://www.chaminade.edu/natural-sciences/faculty/M_Lee_Goff.php
PBS Nature‘s Crime Scene Creatures Interview: Forensic Entomologist Lee Goff http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/crime-scene-creatures-interview-forensic-entomologist-lee-goff/302/
Dr. Goff Interviewed on KHNL-TV https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnNe8SNAz08
National Geographic Channel 2004 Interview with Dr. Goff http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0423_040423_tvbugman.html
American Board of Forensic Entomology http://www.forensicentomologist.org
Acarological Society of America https://sites.google.com/site/acarologicalsociety/home
Acarology: The Study of Mites and Ticks (UK’s Natural History Museum) http://www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted-sites/acarology/
Entomological Society of America http://www.entsoc.org/home
Insect Collections, Zoos, Museums, and Butterfly Gardens in North America http://www.entsoc.org/resources/links/zoos
Amateur Entomologists’ Society: Forensic Entomology http://www.amentsoc.org/insects/insects-and-man/forensic-entomology.html
How Stuff Works: What do bugs have to do with forensic science? http://science.howstuffworks.com/forensic-entomology2.htm
Smithsonian Channel Catching Killers: Insect Evidence http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/catching-killers/insect-evidence/1003122/141561
Q: My question is what would a corpse be like, a victim of scaphism and encased in leather with only the head, hands and feet protruding, discovered after about two weeks in a stagnant pond in summer in England.
A: This is a very complex situation which means that almost anything can happen. Particularly in face of your killer employing scaphism in your poor victim’s ordeal. There are many forces in this circumstance conspiring to destroy the body. After two weeks the decay process would be well along and the body should be swollen and discolored and there might already be some sloughing of tissues, particularly in the hands and the feet so that the fingernails and toenails might have slipped away. The leather binding might lessen the degree of abdominal swelling but maybe not.
Or the decay might be a little less and the body might appear only slightly swollen and discolored. Either is possible. When you add the insects and marine predators such as fish to the picture, tissue destruction could be significant—-or again very mild. Once the body floated or if it were placed on a wooden float of some sort, the insects would easily reach the corpse. These insects prefer warmer and moister areas so they tend to accumulate around the eyes, nose, mouth, groin, and any wounds such as an open abdomen or a stab wound.
Their activity could be significant or minimal, often depending on the weather. If it has rained a lot or if it is windy or if there has been a great deal of fog, insect activity would be diminished as insects do not like these conditions. But, i the weather was warm and sunny, they would be more active. Often when the medical examiner is determining the time of death in bodies that are several weeks old, he will consult a forensic climatologist to assess the weather effects in play and from this make his best guess as to insect activity and this in turn will tell him how long it took for the insects to reach the level of infestation seen. Again is always only his best estimate. And then you throw in predators, both marine and otherwise, and his problems multiply.
At the end of the day, your body would likely have a great deal of decay as described above as well as insect activity. The latter could be everywhere but would be particularly pronounced in the exposed areas where the tissues were easier for the insects to get to. Still they find their way beneath leather bindings and clothing and coverings in order to get to their next meal.
You have a great deal to work with here in that the body can either be slightly or severely decayed and the insect activity can be great or small and anywhere in between. The old adage is that whatever happens, happens. This actually gives you great leeway in how you construct your plot.