Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science by Nigel McCrery

“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

silent witnessesNigel McCrery has had an interesting career – an ex-policeman turned screenwriter, he’s the man behind such successful TV dramas as Silent Witness and New Tricks, and has also written several crime novels. All of which makes him perhaps the ideal person to write a book on the history of the contribution of forensic science to crime detection.

Each chapter looks at a different aspect of forensics – ballistics, blood, fingerprinting, the human body, DNA etc. McCrery introduces us to the scientists and detectives who developed the techniques and tests that gradually led to the current state of play where forensics is one of the major planks of detection. In less skilled hands, this could be a very dry subject indeed, but McCrery writes flowingly and interestingly, making the people come to life and explaining the science in a way that is easy to understand.

What makes the book most interesting is that McCrery tells the stories of the true crimes that were the earliest to be solved by each individual technique, and he ranges widely across the world to do so. He takes us back in time to the earliest days of detection to give a picture of the primitive, sometimes barbaric, methods that were used prior to the development of scientific methods – so we learn, for instance, of the suspect forced to share a bed with the bodies of his supposed victims to see if guilt would produce a confession. Or how about the early method of identifying an unknown victim…

“The head was presented to local magistrates, who ordered that it should be cleaned up and its hair combed. After it had been prepared in this way it was taken to St Margaret’s Parish Church and stuck on a pole for all to see. The queue to view the remains was apparently so long that traders worked the crowd selling food and water.”

Nigel McCrery
Nigel McCrery

McCrery uses a chronological approach to telling his story, so in the chapter on the gun, for instance, we learn about its history from its earliest appearance as a Chinese ‘fire-lance’, through the invention of flintlocks and on to revolvers. At each step he explains what methods could be used to match a particular gun with its bullets and, while I must admit my lack of knowledge about ‘rifling’ has never kept me awake, I found it unexpectedly interesting. On the subject of blood, McCrery takes us back to the days when there was no test to differentiate between human and animal blood, and then leads us through the development of blood-typing and the increasingly sophisticated tests that could be used to match samples. The chapter on poison reveals, amongst other things, why it’s often thought of as a ‘woman’s weapon’ as he tells us about the history of women in the days of forced marriages forming little societies to get rid of their unwanted husbands…

“During the 1650s there was a noted increase in the number of young, rich widows in the larger cities of Europe…A group of young wives, some from among Rome’s first families, were meeting regularly at the house of Hieronyma Spara, a well-known witch and fortune-teller. She was training these women in the art of poisoning. Papal police arrested La Spara and she and several other women were hanged. A further thirty young wives were whipped through the streets.”

And finally, McCrery ends with a look at DNA and how this has revolutionised detection, both as a means of catching the guilty but equally importantly of clearing the innocent. The cases he uses throughout as examples are interesting and well-told, though as we reached closer to the present, I felt a little uncomfortable with the thought of using murders still within living memory as part of what is really an entertainment. However, he does it with a good deal of sensitivity and due respect for both victims and their families.

A fascinating and informative book that is also well-written and enjoyable. Recommended to anyone with an interest in murder…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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32 thoughts on “Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science by Nigel McCrery

  1. An awesome review! And it sounds really, really interesting. The professor just recently watch a few lectures on forensics and I found it incredibly fascinating–especially the parts that related to blood. Something about the different ways blood splatters, if I recall correctly.

    I suppose anything relating to Hematology was fascinating, since it interested the professor’s medical brain.

    Sharing a bed with a supposed victim? That sounds a bit rough. But it would be of interest to see an example today…

    • There was some stuff about spatter patterns in this…it is a very interesting book, especially if you’re already (surprisingly!) interested in forensics. There was also loads about blood types, most of which I didn’t know, testing for blood stains and of course DNA.

      Personally, I liked the idea of the head on the stick – though maybe it would be nicer if they did that to the murderer rather than the victim… 😉

      • Blood types are awesome, aren’t they? Transfusions and the such.

        😆 That would be mean to do to the murderer, though…

        (Why don’t you ever fix the professor’s mistakes? I expect the same service, FEF!)

        • Indeed! I’ve never really understood before why certain types of blood wouldn’t mix with others. There are some gruesome tales in this of early errors…

          I doubt if we’d be allowed to do it in this world, but I reckon it has a certain Punchyness to it!

          The Professor never makes mistakes….does he?

  2. Oh, how fascinating!! This reminds me just a bit of books I’ve read by Keith Simpson and Sir Sydney Smith that dealt with the same general topic. And definitely something that should be in the library of a crime writer…

    • Funnily enough, I was thinking that it would be really useful for crime writers, especially ones starting out who might not yet have police and forensic contacts. There were some interesting crimes in here too that I felt were ripe to be fictionalised…

  3. I think I might try one of his novels first and then come round to this when I have time to give it my full attention. With term now in full swing my non-fiction brain is taken up elsewhere unfortunately.

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