The fascination with the dead and the clues they harbour as to how they died continues to fascinate. Tapping in to this subject for us today was the Director of Forensic Science at Strathclyde University and chair for the session, Professor Jim Fraser, Consultant pathologist, Dr Marjorie Turner and the ever popular novelist, Alex Gray.

Where does this macabre fascination originate from, the chair asked?

Alex was chucked out of maths and science at school, showed an application for language and was fascinated by biology and the patterns of DNA.

Marjorie was peering over her father’s shoulder while he was reading books on real-life murders. One particular book detailed an early case of facial re-construction … and a career was born.

For Marjorie when she is doing her “day job” she is faced with a series of questions. Cause of death? Type of injuries? Weapons used? Number of assailants? It just happens that the clues are in and around a corpse.

With her use of forensics, Alex is seeking to authenticate. She feels a real awe for the knowledge and experience of the experts, but realises she needs to use the information with care. Her job is to give a flavour of reality, set the scene without going into laborious detail. She much prefers to speak to real people rather than use Google. (Other search engines are available. Really.) And being aware that professionals read her books, she wants to get it right.

She was challenged: did she really need to go into all that detail? Marjorie answered for her. As a reader she cares about the detail. She wants the author to get the research right because she loses trust and can’t take the author seriously if she knows they have got it wrong. She qualified this by saying that it can’t be completely true to life. The author’s job is to take an element of realism and entertain. The reality of endless hours of procedure would be death to pace and a less than enjoyable read.

An audience member asked about the “CSI effect”. It appears that how evidence is presented in TV drama is having an impact on the expectations of real-life jury members. Jim talked about that conundrum, the Time of Death. In one professional text students use, the expert says that the only truly reliable method of ascertaining time of death is to ask, when was the victim last seen alive, when were they found dead and to extrapolate that death occurred somewhere in between. Whereas, TV dramas, to suit the needs of plot, often go by the clock.

Jim also gave an example of one jury member in a court in Newcastle, who was so dissatisfied with the inexact nature of the police investigation as presented to him in court, he conducted his own house-to-house enquiries.

In another question, an audience member asked how peering at dead bodies all day might affect someone. Marjorie answered by saying that to her it’s “normal”. She is there to investigate, find answers, to satisfy the need to know of those left behind. She can’t dwell on the person who used to inhabit the flesh before her – but she does often feel an overwhelming sense of her own mortality.

Someone else asked how the science of crime as depicted on TV has affected crime. They were worried that writers are feeding ideas to criminals. Alex Gray was happy to take up this particular cudgel. Criminals have far worse imagination than I have, she said. She cited an experience she had when she was speaking to a group of prisoners at one of the country’s biggest prisons. Her book at the time was “Five Ways to Kill A Man”. One prisoner took a look at the title on the book and said. “Only five? I could give you way more than five.”

And on that note …

Post by Michael Malone
Photos by Iain McLean