Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: 'Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime,’an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London, explores the history, science and art of forensic medicine. It runs through the 21st of June, so if you're able to go — hurry! 

I was lucky enough to be able to go on my recent research trip to London — and it was fascinating. The exhibit's mix of history, science, and art make it both informative and also (dare I say?) entertaining, going from a blood-splattered floor to a ceramic morgue table to a Victorian death mask. (Oh, and then there's the videos of how flies infest corpses — definitely worth watching, but my advice is to do so on an empty stomach....)

Here's the official description of the exhibit:

'Forensics: the anatomy of crime’ explores the history, science and art of forensic medicine. It travels from crime scene to courtroom, across centuries and continents, exploring the specialisms of those involved in the delicate processes of collecting, analysing and presenting medical evidence. It draws out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes, and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.
The exhibition contains original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments and specimens, and is rich with artworks offering both unsettling and intimate responses to traumatic events. Challenging familiar views of forensic medicine shaped by fictions that came out of the sensational reporting of late Victorian murder cases and popular crime dramas, ‘Forensics’ highlights the complex entwining of law and medicine, and the scientific methods it calls upon and creates.

The exhibit starts with "Forensic Etymology: the Crime Scene," 

moves on to "Examining the Body and Post-Mortum: the Morgue," 

then goes on to "Analyzing Forensic Evidence: the Laboratory," 

to "Human Identification: the Search," 

to "Forensic Evidence and Expertise in Court: the Courtroom." 

All aspects of the exhibit were excellent, but —perhaps not surprisingly — I was most interested in forensic science used in the 1930s and 1940s. The objects and photographs I spent the most time with were Frances Glessner Lee's "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" — which looked to me at first like dollhouses gone terribly, terribly wrong. (Also, who's heard of Frances Gleaner Lee? What a remarkable woman!)

But, in actuality, Lee's creations are a series of one-inch to one-foot scale models of crime scenes that were created in the 1940s as training aids for the Chicago Police. Truly, they are works of macabre beauty, which isn't undercut at all by their practical application.

And then there's also the accompanying book by crime writer Val McDermid. Here's the description:

The dead talk. To the right listener, they tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died - and who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help justice to be done using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene or the faintest of human traces. Forensics uncovers the secrets of forensic medicine, drawing on interviews with top-level professionals, ground-breaking research and Val McDermid's own experience to lay bare the secrets of this fascinating science. And, along the way, she wonders at how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine time of death, how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a 
Val McDermid
grain of salt can be used to convict a killer and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist uncovered the victims of a genocide. 

In her crime novels, Val McDermid has been solving complex crimes and confronting unimaginable evil for years. Now, she's looking at the people who do it for real, and real crime scenes. It's a journey that will take her to war zones, fire scenes and autopsy suites, and bring her into contact with extraordinary bravery and wickedness, as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day. Published in partnership with the Wellcome Collection, a free visitor destination that explores the connections between medicine, life and art.

Reds and lovely readers, when you read mysteries and thrillers, are you more interested in the forensics or the characters? Or both equally? And if forensics, why? Historic or cutting-edge?

And if you could curate a mystery-related exhibit at a museum, what would it be and why? Please tell us in the comments!


  1. This sounds like an amazing exhibit . . . I loved watching the video clips!
    Forensics or characters? Both, I think. It’s fascinating to follow the process, to see how the evidence helps to solve the crime. But good characters certainly make the stories real . . . .

  2. You had an unbelievable research trip! So many interesting things you're sharing with us.

    Forensics or characters? Characters.

    An interesting character or cast of characters who care about one another will keep me coming back to an author's work time after time after time. I love learning about them and watching their world evolve while they grow.

  3. Frances Gleaner Lee, my new hero! (And wouldn't she make a great series protagonist?) This is fascinating.

    I'm fascinated by forensics, but mostly it's background for the characters (except when it feels wrong...) But all that centrifuging and pipette-ing that looks fascinating on the TV screen can be glacial on the page.

    Great question: an exhibit. How about Locked Rooms - a series of "doll house" setups showing the scene of the crime for famous locked-room mysteries? The mysteries, then the solutions.

  4. Both characters and forensics interest me. I don't really care so much about "who done it"; it's the characters, and more and more now, the forensics that draw me to a good mystery. I enjoy reading or watching how the detectives and the forensics people work together to solve the mystery, and to bring about justice for the victims, in one way or another. No, I don't like looking at the insects, but I like it that they serve a purpose in the world of forensics!

  5. Hi everybody!

    Hallie, yes! That was my first thought, too! Frances Gleaner Lee is my new hero -- they should do an exhibit dedicated solely to her! And she should have her own series, each with it's own dollhouse.... Hmmm, idea for another post at least?

    And "Locked Rooms" -- yes!

  6. Wow, I so wish that I could see this exhibit. Val McDermid is one of the legends of the crime fiction field. And one of the nicest.

    I have to say what I focus on in a book really depends on who wrote it. I know that in a Val book or Kathy Reichs, I'm going to get on-point forensics. But other writers, such as Louise Penny, are going to be be fully fleshed out - REAL - characters. One is not better than the other, they are just different approaches

    As for a museum exhibit, I'd love something on crime fiction book covers.

  7. So fascinating - I wish we could make the trip to see it! Youngest is very interested in forensic anthropology (piqued by true-crime shows and solidified by a forensic anthro class in her summer science camp.) And those tiny crime scenes! Someone should start making them to sell at the major mystery conferences. They'd be snatched up in seconds.

    I actually went to grad school for Museum Studies (fun fact that the rest of you may not have known about me) and I would curate an exhibit on the images of women in crime - from the 20s gun moll, to the Depression-era Ma Barker, to the 40s femme fatales: how popular culture spotlighted real women involved with real crime has a lot to say about the changing roles of women in the US.

  8. I'd love to see that exhibit - but I think I'd have to skip the video on the flies and maggots. At least until well after a meal.

    Characters or forensics? I like both, but I'll have to give characters the edge. Usually. As Kristopher said, someones you know going into a book it's going to be primarily about the procedure. As long as you understand that, you'll be okay. But my preference as a reader (and a writer) is to create strong, relatable characters who also have good procedure.

    Museum exhibit. Hmm. Cover art is good. I'd like to see scale-sized models of famous murder scenes (fiction or real life). With an explanation of how the details helped solve the crime (or why not). I think that would be interesting.

  9. Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, has a mystery-writing character in a later book - Wit's End - who creates a "macabre" dollhouse depicting the murder scene in each of the successful mysteries she's written. Her young god-daughter comes to visit, and keeps stumbling over these dollhouses in every room of the house. Wonder if she got her inspiration from Frances Gleaner?

  10. Love, love, love the forensics, up to a point. When it's presented in this way, as an exhibit, or if it's peripheral and integral to the plot and characters, also great. But when the forensics, with all the gory details, lead the entire book, I'm not a fan. I have stopped reading a couple of writers who get so bogged down in the gore that it's just downright unpleasant to read. Maybe I have too good of an imagination.

    The dollhouse-sized rooms sound fascinating! What a cool exhibit.

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  12. Oh, this is so amazing--thank you, Susan. You are a treasure.

    I love the "how did they find it" aspect of mysteries, but the problem with forensics in novels can be the information is either so obvious that it is known by every one : " Why didn't they just get DNA?"


    so obscure that it's surprising and unfair. "Oh," says the sleuth, "the half-life of ball point pen ink is 30 minutes. So if we compare the ink in this RollerBall 36-T with the ink on the supposed suicide note, we can easily see the note was written AFTER the victim died!"

    (I made that up, so don't say-whoa, I didn't know that.)

    Anyway--if the reader doesn't know the thing, sometimes I feel that it's unfair to drop in a cool (even though true) forensics item to solve the case. And if they DO know, then its not interesting.

    I guess what I'm attempting (and failing) to say is that real-life forensics can be more believable and interesting than using it in a book.

    YOu know Meredith COle, right? She did a series with an amateur sleuth photographer--who did reconstructions of crime scenes and the took photos of them. t

    But the dollhouses. Whoa. Yeah.

  13. Also, who's heard of Frances Gleaner Lee?

    Oh me! I have. Because I have the book. But wow, you got to see the actual rooms at the exhibit? Wicked!

  14. This reminds me of Karen Joy Fowler's book WIT'S END - the protagonist makes dollhouses with meticulously constructed crime scenes drawn from the works of a mystery writer. It's wonderfully creepy. It's got a book within a book, houses within a house, and dreamy stream-of-consciousness narration.

  15. There was a series of shows on the original, Gil Grissom version of CSI that had dollhouse crime scenes, if I'm not mistaken. Gil and crew had to figure out the next move of the killer, based on the scenes.

  16. what a cool exhibit, Susan, thanks for sharing. You won't be surprised to hear that I'm more interested in people than forensics:). But Val McDermid is amazing. And I love the dollhouses too--Hallie, I can see why you're drawn to Wit's End!

    Hank, I didn't know that about ballpoint pen ink! I may have to use that....

  17. I am fascinated by forensics, but it's not the driving force in choosing a mystery to read, unless it is. Let me explain that statement a bit. Most of the mysteries I read, especially a series, keep me coming back because of the characters and great stories. However, there are a few series or books that have drawn me in because of the forensics, and, Julia, here I'm on the same page as Youngest, because it's forensic anthropology that intrigues me the most. That a forensic anthropologist can take the bones of someone long dead and gather clues about how that person died (and lived) amazes me. One series that I love and has come out in the last few years is by Jen J. Danna, and features Massachusetts State Police Trooper Leigh Abbott and Forensic Anthropologist Matt Lowell. Together they solve crimes based on what the bones have to tell. And, I love the characters and stories, too.

    I've read books by Val McDermid and never failed to become ensconced into whatever story she's telling. I am excited to learn of her book on forensics Susan, what a great exhibit you attended! I'm now so interested in Frances Gleaner Lee and the little doll house rooms. Julia, I agree that these would sell like hotcakes at mystery and crime conventions/conferences.

  18. Wow, I didn't know Val McDermid had a nonfiction forensics book out! I gotta check it out.

    I'm more about the characters too. I'll probably never be too procedural or scientific in my novels even though it's fascinating stuff in real life. Now that I think about it, I don't tend to read the hard-core procedural crime novels either.

  19. The characters are way more important to me. However I am fascinated by the science of forensics. I like to read about it but not to the point that the story turns into a text book!

  20. Susan, what a terrific post!! I went to the exhibit when I was in London, too, with my friend Karin Salvalaggio. We only allowed ourselves about two hours to see it, having no idea just how complex it was. You will know that we spent every minute of that two hours and could have stayed for another two if the museum hadn't been closing--and our feet hadn't been tired!

    The dollhouse was amazing!! I'd like to do some research on Frances Gleaner Lee. She was a socialite, I think, who used her time and talent to create something that would help the police solve murders.

    And I bought Val's book when I was there! Alas, it's barely been thumbed through, so thanks for reminding me to move it to prime position on my desk.

    Forensics or characters? Always characters first, although I'm very interested in forensics. (I was a biology major at college, then took a post-grad forensics course.) But I spend a lot of effort in my books trying to have the case NOT be solved by forensics--although it's great to have forensics as back up. But the books are not meant to be CSI, and I think it's much more fun to have the detectives making deductions.

  21. Wonderful blog! I have to admit that as a writer, I am bloodthirsty with an iron stomach. What a glorious opportunity to see all of this in London, I am picturing swirling fog, the clip clop of horses hooves and shouts of "the Ripper has struck again."

    As a reader, I admit I devour the details and they better be right, because I will check. But that said, the details need to be filtered through the characters and what he/she would know, and how they would react. So I suspect it's character first as that's how the details are perceived.

  22. Fascinating post, Susan!

    Yes, I'm very interested in forensics and hope to visit the Wellcome Collection in London as well as the collection of the Florentine libraries.

    The mystery-related exhibit I would curate would be based on the knowledge revealed in the Florentine libraries' medieval collection that presents the history of autopsy, dissection, and medical forensics as originating in medical practices.

  23. Took notes on this post -- leaving tomorrow evening for two weeks in London (!!!).

    I like to follow the diagnostic trail, with forensic clues.