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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 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…

I confess to not being a huge fan of true crime accounts per se, but with the dual temptations of Val McDermid- one of the UK’s premier crime novelists- and a real behind the scenes look at the craft of forensic science, I couldn’t resist a look at this one. What unfolds is a fascinating and wonderfully readable look at a wide range of forensic practices and case histories that sheds light on the skill and intuition of crime scene investigators, underscored by the fluid and entertaining style of McDermid’s writing.

The books charts over 200 years of developments in forensic techniques, using a combination of familiar crimes like the Ripper case, but whirling backwards and forwards through time, to provide a view into more recent crimes and atrocities like the Madrid train bombings. Equally, a familiar institution like The Body Farm in America is set against the ground-breaking techniques that are occurring day in and day out by less well known forensic laboratories, so adding heightened points of interest and discovery for the reader. Broken down into specific areas of interest in each chapter, this format allows the reader to skip back and forth easily, and I found this very useful, reading this alongside fiction. The chapters cover a wide breadth of subjects; fire scene investigation, entomology, pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, blood spatter, DNA, anthropology, facial reconstruction, digital forensics, forensic psychology and finally how these techniques are drawn on during the final legal process to gain a conviction. The language is uncomplicated, but never patronising, and I would say that this book would hold a wide appeal, not only for those employed in, or studying the field of forensic science, but also eminently suitable for writers and readers such as myself with an interest in the subject, but no advanced knowledge of this field. Bolstering McDermid’s presentation of the subject matter, there are also some insights into her own personal experiences of gathering the material for the book, and some nice personal touches to the overall narrative. If like me you are rather jaded by the celluloid representations of the CSI field, with their showy camera tricks and lip glossed forensic investigators, there is much to be gleaned from this well-researched and highly readable account of this crucial area of crime detection. Although McDermid does incorporate some cultural references to crime on screen, for the most part, the book centres on the real day to day job of forensic investigators and the difficult, and at times, laborious reality of their investigations.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and having read many, many fictional crime books presenting assorted medical examiners and forensic officers, it was a rewarding and refreshing insight into those who do this for real. I learnt some things that I didn’t know before, but equally enjoyed McDermid’s representation of the more familiar cases and developments through the years. An entertaining and enlightening read for professionals and laymen alike.

(With thanks to Profile Books for the ARC)

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