HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Uh-oh. Stuff you never thought about.
You think this murder stuff is easy? Huh.
As author Nupur Tustin says on Franz Joseph Haydn: “You may know him as a composer. You may even know him as Kapellmeister—Director of Music—to the powerful Esterhazy Princes. Now, I’d like to introduce you to Haydn, the Kapell-Detective.”
But in writing about Haydn the detective, Nupur ran into a bit of a dilemma. The question: Can forensic science play a role in historical mysteries? And the answer? Well, it’s fascinating. And who better to interview her about it—than the author herself?
NUPUR TUSTIN: Why would a writer of historical mysteries bother researching forensic techniques?
I was writing the first draft of A Minor Deception, when a dead body showed up, and I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to describe it.
Obviously some sort of description was necessary. There was a corpse in the wine-tavern. Even if Haydn looked away, revolted, after his first glance, I'd have to provide some explanation as to the cause of his revulsion. Moreover, the barber-surgeon, also present at the scene, was unlikely to be quite so squeamish.
But things were so different back in the eighteenth century?
Then again, some things don't change. Whether your mystery is set in eighteenth-century Austria or twenty-first century Los Angeles, when a body appears on the scene, you need to give your reader some idea of what your sleuth sees. Manners and customs may have changed, but the changes that take place in the body after death have not.
Some changes like rigor mortis—the stiffening of the limbs after death—would have been commonplace in a time when death itself was an everyday occurrence.
Other changes—such as the bloating that occurs as toxins are released in the process of decomposition—may have seemed more unnatural. Certainly in eighteenth-century Austria these changes led to a vampire scare so widespread, the Empress Maria Theresa had to command her personal physician to look into the matter.
Whether your victim is an eighteenth-century traveler or a twenty-first century lawyer, the appearance of a stabbing or bludgeoning or death by drowning remain the same.
Yes, but how much would an eighteenth-century individual know about the signs that point to violent death?
Your eighteenth-century sleuth may not necessarily realize the bloodshot appearance of a victim's eyes points to death by strangulation, but that's not to say he or she won't notice it.
An experienced executioner might even be able to tell your sleuth about this particular phenomenon. You can't hang criminals, lop off their heads, or carry out other similar executions without learning a thing or two about what happens during and after the event.
All right, forensic pathology may be useful, but what made you delve deeper?
Although forensic pathology gave me nightmares, my introduction to it brought me into contact with other fascinating technologies available to the modern investigator. When a fellow crime writer shared the news of a free online course taught by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, I was eager to take it, although I didn't think I'd learn much from it of value to the Haydn Mysteries.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Absolutely. As I worked with fellow students on solving a true crime, I realized there was more to investigating a crime than pulling out all the stops with the fancy techniques available to us. Based on what the investigator sees at the crime scene, the initial interviews, and oftentimes the subsequent behavior of the survivors, a hypothesis is formulated.
It is this hypothesis that directs further investigation.
In fact as I worked on the case, I realized my questions, and the ones the instructors were prompting me to ask, had nothing to do with the examination of trace evidence and everything to do with (a) the appearance of the crime scene, and the mismatch between it and the story the victim's husband gave the initial responders; (b) my knowledge of human behavior; and (c) my nascent knowledge of criminal behavior.
Can you illustrate those three types of questions?
Sure. Here's an example of the first type. The gunman had apparently opened the passenger-side door, and in a struggle with the victim, shot her in her right temple. The incident took place in the U.K., meaning that the entry wound would have to be in the left temple for that story to be accurate. Her right temple faced her husband.
The position of the body suggested she'd been looking straight ahead when she'd been shot.
As for the second and third, having shot one individual, how plausible is it that the killer would have left the other alive to potentially identify him? The woman had received a fatal wound to her temple; but her husband had sustained only a minor injury to his left arm.
Fascinating! But how did all this help with the Haydn Mysteries?
The questions I asked as I worked on this case are the same type of questions I have Haydn ask when he's presented with a crime. What's the most likely hypothesis based on the initial evidence? If new evidence challenges his initial assumptions, what explanation might take into account both the old and the new evidence?
Since I already know who the killer is, thinking in this way helps me to refine the plot as I write my novel. I'm not only considering how to present evidence based on what actually happened, I'm also thinking about plausible ways in which it might be misinterpreted.
You're forgetting they didn't have the technology to evaluate trace evidence back then.
I've come to realize that forensic evidence is more important in presenting a cast-iron case in court than in actually solving the crime. While in some cases, it does solve the crime, in others, it has to be taken in conjunction with other types of evidence gleaned from interviews with the victim's family, suspects, and anyone remotely involved. Frequently, two experts will disagree on whether fingerprints or tire marks or even handwriting match. And DNA evidence is only as good as the kit used to collect it.
Sounds like a lot of work. Don't you already have your hands full researching the time period?
Oddly enough, it makes writing a historical mystery much easier. The same type of investigative work needs to be done to narrow down the list of suspects and to follow leads. I still, of course, try to present the reader with as much cast-iron evidence as I can.
What about you, readers? Are you convinced that learning about contemporary investigative techniques can be helpful even to a writer of historical mysteries? Can you think of examples from mysteries you've written or read?
HANK: Oh, that is so fascinating! Huh. I keep thinking about The Alienist. It’s such a complicated balance—because we as readers are reading trough the prism of what we know—and compare it to how what it was like in the past. How do we change our perspective and expectations to feel comfortable in the past?
Love this, Nupur! And tell us more about your book.
And I’m delighted to give a copy of A MINOR DECPTION to one lucky commenter. Are you a fan of classical music?
Bio: A former journalist, Nupur Tustin relies upon a Ph.D. in Communication and an M.A. in English to orchestrate fictional mayhem. Childhood piano lessons and a 1903 Weber Upright share equal blame for her musical works.
Haydn Series: http://ntustin.com