Silent Witnesses, by Nigel McCrery

13536847Continuing my odd streak of reading nonfiction books, I finished Nigel McCrery’s Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science this evening. As I read it, mostly while waiting at the mechanic’s garage waiting, I paused to contemplate my fingerprints (to see if I have arch, whorl, or loop prints*) or looked at the mechanics’ hands to wonder what chemicals and substances they might transfer. (I got more than a few weird looks of my own.) Silent Witnesses is a solid introduction to forensics, with many interesting nuggets of criminal history. It is not a guide to committing the perfect crime**.

McCrery divides his book into seven sections: identity, ballistics, blood, trace evidence, body, poison, and DNA. As advertised in the subtitle, most of the chapters contain short histories of cases and scientific discovery. McCrery tracked down the first time fingerprinting solved a case or Alphonse Bertillon‘s system found a thief and murder, or when blood evidence exonerated a suspect or convicted another. McCrery covers crimes from the 1700s right up to the present. There are few pictures, and none of bloody crime scenes, so the book is fairly safe for any reader (though some of the crimes described are very grim).


Sir William Herschel instituted
widespread fingerprinting to
prevent payroll fraud.

Time and again, as scientists discovered how to reliably use fingerprints or identify poisons, they faced resistance from police, the judicial system, and juries. We now take such forensic techniques for granted. In fact, we are so exposed to a glamorized version of forensics from shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones and others, that psychologists have identified the CSI Effect. To look back at the early days of forensic science is a little frustrating, because you want to yell at people with objections for being small-minded obstructionists. McCrery does a great job of warding off too much frustration by pointing out the flaws in the early science. He recounts cases in which innocent people were imprisoned, and even executed, because of faulty or bad science.

If you’re a fan of modern mysteries (or CSI) there’s not much here, science-wise, that you won’t know. The history is revelatory. I enjoyed reading about cases and experiments very much. McCrery does have a few writerly tics that the editor should have caught. He frequently writes, “as we have seen” or “as I have shown” and refers to many cases as famous or infamous. Still, this is a pretty good read, especially since a history of forensic science (and its attendant chemistry, geology, physics, etc.) could have been (‘scuze the pun) deadly.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 September 2014.

* Mostly loops and arches.
** Not that I was looking for a manual. Honest.


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