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Forensics: What bugs, burns, prints, DNA and more tell us about crime by Val McDermid

After countless cases, many of them investigated by the character Tony Hill, Val McDermid decided to write a book about the true forensic science. She takes us behind the barriers at a crime scene, explains forensic science and how autopsies are done. The book deals with entomology, forensic medicine, toxicology, fingerprints, blood traces, dna-profiling, forensic sculpture, face reconstruction, digital criminal science and forensic psychology, and the author uses an interesting approach. Interviews with experts in the field and murder investigations from all ages are used to show the development of forensic science in the last 200 years, and it is fascinating. Among many, there is a story about a physician that murdered approximately 210 patients, two bodies found in 30 packages and a spy found dead in a trunk. Experts on everything from flies and larvae to poisons try to map the circumstances to understand what has happened, so the police have greater chances of finding the person responsible.

The book is repulsive, occasionally, but very fascinating. It shows us an entire world that the public, generally, isn’t allowed to enter. A meticulous work where details might mean the different between life and death.

An interesting fact is the author’s critical approach to forensic science. She describes an immense belief in evidence, both by the judicial system and the public. Experts testimonies in court depend much on their experience, reconstructions and interpretations. Furthermore, in court the attourneys and prosecutors often discusses juridical matters instead of seeking the truth, and might use the testimony as they choose. Since dna-profiling, or genetic fingerprints, was first used in investigations in the 80’s, 314 people being sentenced have been freed, only in the US. Dna has had an immense impact, just as physical fingerprints had in the beginning of the 1900’s. But not even dna-profiling is totally reliable. Contamination happens, and even the refined dna-profiling technique, LCN, where a microscopic quantity of dna is copied, has its flaws. Forensic consists of science and the human factor.

One of the most important themes in the book is the author’s discussion about the fact that the progress of science constantly forces us to a standpoint where ethic and morality is concerned. In forensics, the mapping of genetic material and research of genes that increase the risk of becoming a criminal, restrict the individual integrity and it is almost impossible to garantee that information is not misused. This kind of questions are important to contemplate. Today, we have to consider the risks of technology such as the current surveillance and the development of artificial intelligence.

Those who have seen the tv-series CSI, Crime scene investigation, might be a little disappointed when reading the book. CSI might have increased expectations when it comes to forensic science, but on the other hand, it might have awaken an interest and curiosity among the public. Those who understand the difference between fiction and reality and want to know more about forenic science will have many questions answered. Unfortunately, there could have been more information about different procedures and how they work. But the author covers many parts of forensic science and this is a way to discover the forensics.

In a time when detective fiction and murder mysteries fill the shelves in the book stores it is interesting to plunge into the real work, where there are as many mysteries. Forensic science is astonishing and the reality often exceeds poem.