Val McDermid and Professor Sue Black, Edinburgh Book Festival, 14 August 2012
Following directly on from Clive Stafford Smith we had Val McDermid, well-known Scottish crime fiction author, and Professor Sue Black. Sue is professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the Universtry of Dundee, and has done a lot of fantastic work on identifying bodies (and causes of death) in places like Bosnia and in the aftermath of earthquakes and floods.In Britain she's a fairly well-known face because of her starring role in the History Cold Case programmes. The talk was to be about how crime writers use forensic science in their stories, and the problems of keeping up to date as that science continues to advance.
First of all, this was a very funny talk, because these are two very funny women. That may seem a strange thing to say about women whose lives, in different ways, revolve around violent death, but there you are. they met when both were taking part in a radio show (from different studios) and had got chatting during a pause for some technical problem or other. Sue Black had offered Val McD advice if she wanted it, and so of course one day she got a call asking what a pubic scalp would look like. As you do. (The answer, apparently, is tinned tuna, with hair.) And so it began.
In among the jibes about Fife (McDermid is originally from Kirkcaldy and still supports Raith Rovers, while Sue Black works in Dundee: they both ganged up on St Andrews though, which Val described as being not so much in Fife as in Narnia) we learned a lot in the course of the talk, which ranged over a host of corpse-related topics. Such as:
Sue Black is afraid of rodents. She claims to have picked her specialism at university because it meant she wouldn't have to work with mice or rats (just, you know, dead people).
Ink from tattoos accumulates in the lymph nodes (e.g. under the armpits) so even if someone cuts off a victim's tattooed arms to hinder identification, investigators can still know that the victims had tattooed arms, and what colour inks were used on each arm.
Stable isotope analysis not only allows investigators to tell where a victim had spent time in the last six months of her/his life, but to tell places the victim's mother visited during pregnancy.
Investigators are very alert to cross-contamination: the ease with which a clever criminal can introduce innocent people's DNA (or even fingerprints) into a crime scene.
Analysis of familial DNA (expressing probabilities that one person is related to another) has proved useful. A killer whose DNA was unrecognised was eventually caught when his sister was blood-tested on suspicion of drink-driving. Her DNA was a close enough match to the sample from the crime scene that the search was narrowed to her family and he was caught.
The patterns of veins on the backs of your hands are as individual as fingerprints and are beginning to be used for identification in a similar way. Apparently there have been child pornography videos where the adult involved has hidden his face but shown good imagery of the back of a hand. Bad move.
Asked about a national DNA database, both women expressed civil liberties concerns over the risk of confidentiality breaches (people being able to find out whether you have genetic conditions you might prefer were not public knowledge). But Sue Black pointed out (to the astonishment of Val McDermid) that since the late 1960s all babies born in britain have had a heel-prick test (Guthrie test) for various conditions, and the blood samples are retained. (Except those from Wigan, where they were sold to an American pharmaceutical company some years ago.) So while there is no searchable DNA database, there are stored DNA samples from almost all of the population. You couldn't use it to say "A-ha! Rob Saunders is the killer!" (or the unidentified victim) but if you had me on a list of suspects you could use it for confirmation. You could hear jaws dropping all round the room as she explained that.
And finally...the pair are raising money for a morgue. The point is that pathologists and forensic anthropologists currently have to practice on preserved corpses whose look and feel are very different from fresh ones. The new morgue will have facilities for a more modern method of preservation which produces a much more realistic result, thus improving training. Every £1 donation gets you a vote for which famous crime writer the morgue will be named after (Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, Val McDermid, Jeff Lindsay etc). Here is their website. Apparently you can also pay to have yourself (or a consenting friend) included as a victim in a crime novel!
Oh, and we also learned that Val McDermid is one of a group of authors who have volunteered to produce update versions of Jane Austen novels (I don't know who the others are). Val chose Northanger Abbey, partly because she felt it is always unfairly relegated to the bottom of the Jane Austen heap, but also because in many ways it's a very modern novel: Austen has a moan about how nobody reads novels these days! there is also a scene where a male character is bragging about all the features his new carriage has, which Val described as "just like Jeremy Clarkson". It's also packed full of parody of the Gothic novels which were the fashion when it was written, so a modern version could parody, say, the Twilight series. My mind is already boggling.