An Expert Eye by guest blogger Gillian Hamer
A thoughtful reviewer wrote this recently about my latest crime novel release, Crimson Shore:
“Crime novels are harder to write than they are to read. The author must hold back, keep a twist for the tail without letting too much away but without leaving the outcome too far-fetched or disappointing. The ending has to satisfy. Not only that, but these days a crime author must remain au fait with the latest technology and the latest crime-fighting wizardry of the forensic pathologist. Whilst doing all this, the author needs to characterise perfectly - a flawed detective, a bent copper, an old crime that's festered in the background for decades or some kind of psychopathic adversary, but above all these characters need to be perfectly weighted - often over the course of several books.”
Sage words. And I agree with pretty much every one of them. Crime writing is incredibly difficult for a multitude of reasons, of which just a few have been mentioned above. No genre of writing is easy, of course. With so many plates spinning at any one time, it’s always a tense balancing act. But with crime fiction, spinning plates is only a side skill. As writers, we are often urged to develop techniques like POV (point of view) by getting inside our characters’ heads or knowing them so well we are under their skin. But when, as a crime writer, one of your lead protagonists is a serial rapist or multiple murderer – how exactly do you put the fact into fiction?
Research, research, and more research is the answer.
Towards the top of the list of difficulties of writing in this genre for me is authenticity. The easiest way, in my mind at least, of spoiling a crime novel, and losing the reader, is a lack of believability. And sad to say, as a reader, I’ve faced this dilemma on quite a few occasions. Getting it right, whatever the ‘it’ may be, is vital. And the ‘it’ in this genre can be wide and varied. It can be setting the right atmosphere of tension and intrigue. It can be getting inside the mind of a twisted killer or the victim of a vicious attack. It can be correct representation of police procedurals, or detailed knowledge of a complex subject such as pathology or forensics.
And that is my chosen topic for this blog post.
Personally as a writer, I find both the ‘baddie’ scenes and the ‘detective’ scenes relatively easy to write. The voices come to me quite early on in the process, and the characters develop as I proceed. I read a lot of crime and watch a lot of television detective dramas, so procedural doesn’t present too many problems and is relatively easy to research. But in a couple of my books, I’ve relied heavily of pathology and forensic procedures, a topic that has long fascinated me. Reading books has never really been enough for me, unless I take reams of notes I then rarely look through, I don’t seem to be able to absorb the information. I think it may be because I am a visual writer, so I need to interact more for research to sink in. So, three years ago, I enrolled on an entry level Forensics Science course, with the Open University. I’m proud to say I managed to pass although it was a hard years’ work, and I found a lot of the science-based chapters a tough challenge.
The research material supplied on the course is an invaluable asset to me even now, and for that reason alone, I’d recommend taking the plunge in something similar if you get an opportunity. The course work started with basic police procedurals such as crime scene investigation, fingerprint analysis, examination of blood and bodily fluids which then led into the more complex world of DNA profiling. One of the chapters I have recently re-researched for my current WIP is forensic toxicology and drug abuse. I learned so much about toxicity and the analysis of drugs and poisons that I know I can write with confidence when my detective characters face these issues in the course of their investigation.
The most interesting subject I studied was forensic science and the legal system. The role of forensic science in a court of law is an interesting and ever-changing spectrum. With new technology and profiling techniques appearing year on year, UK legislation is constantly changing and adapting to take up the benefits of new developments. As a writer, keeping abreast of these changes is vital to keep your work authentic.
But despite all of the incredible new options that forensic science and pathology offer to the police and legal services, I was also amazed at just how hard and time-consuming it was to ensure the accuracy of the data collated. And the statistics for times when the evidence did prove unreliable due to contamination or foul-play was quite staggering.
Many crime novels would have you believe that DNA is the saviour of policing. And yes, DNA analysis is a robust technique based on sound scientific principles that has revolutionised both policing and the legal system. But DNA profiling is not 100% accurate and can fall foul of human error with disastrous consequences. Example: For sixteen years, German police chased an elusive female serial killer known as ‘the Phantom of Heilbronn’, as the same female DNA was found at 40 crime scenes, including six murders. It was eventually discovered that the cotton swabs used to collect the samples of DNA had been contaminated by a woman working at the factory making the swabs, and that the crimes were not linked. If you want to find out more about this case, have a look at ‘DNA bungle’ haunts German police via BBC News.
It seems to me that not even the most up-to-date technology can ever be foolproof and that back-to-basics policing is still always required.
So, this month I have made a move away from the science-based procedure and have enrolled on a second OU course, this time examining the human brain in terms evidence. The course is titled “Forensic psychology: witness investigation. Discover how psychology can help obtain evidence from witnesses in police investigations and prevent miscarriages of justices.”
I’ve only just started the course, but I already know it’s going to be hugely beneficial to my writing, not only by re-hashing much of what I learn into my detective team by choosing a character to undertake a similar course, but also my adding another layer of authenticity to my writing.
Increasingly in many crime novels and TV dramas, we see a talented team of scientists rely on bloods and amino acids to catch murderers. Many more authors now focus on the use of forensic analysis of physical evidence to solve cases and identify killers. And yet, in the real world, understanding how the human mind works, particularly how our memory works, is a crucial part of any police investigation.
The human element of any story, particularly the evidence provided by victims/witness remains a compelling component. In real life, cases are rarely straightforward because of human intervention and for many reasons there is more likely than not considerable uncertainty as to whether the person accused of the crime actually did it – and with any shred of ‘reasonable doubt’ in place in a courtroom, a conviction is always unlikely. Knowing how to evaluate evidence and how to improve eye-witness reports can be the key to solving the crime and seeing justice achieved.
As the numbers of miscarriages of justice due to a breakdown in physical evidence evaluation continues to rise, so does the interaction between the legal profession and forensic psychology. A number of different terms have been adopted to describe its application to law, including ‘legal psychology’ and ‘criminal psychology’. The applications are becoming more and more wide-spread and are something crime writers should focus at least partly on in their own fictional cases as it offers huge scope. There is the work of psychologists who are concerned with the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders, and offender profiling. Additionally, there is research, often conducted in the laboratory, that examines witness testimony, juror decision making and public perceptions and attitudes towards crime and punishments.
My latest OU course focuses on just one element of forensic psychology - witness testimony. The need for correct police handing of the human link in the chain of events of vital. The stats where things go wrong are staggering, with eyewitness misidentification remaining the leading cause of wrongful convictions, featuring in over 75% of cases. This analysis also showed that forensic science featured in 23% of the wrongful convictions. It is common for crime dramas to portray forensic science as being completely accurate and reliable, but often the techniques they show owe more to science fiction than they do science fact. In reality, the accuracy and reliability of forensic science varies greatly according to the particular technique in question. In addition, a great deal of forensic science is reliant on the interpretation and judgements made by a human expert, which can lead to mistakes being made.
From a writers’ perspective, not only does this research and knowledge add another string to my bow and assist character development, but also it takes me one step closer to a real-life laboratory, crime scene investigation, or police incident room. I have always believed it is vital for a crime writer to burrow as deeply as they possibly can in their research so it becomes almost second nature. And no, we obviously can’t go out and practise our murderers on the public, but we can give ourselves a solid factual base in terms of crime-solving. Not only does this tick the all-important authenticity box, but it’s a great deal more fun – and a whole lot more realistic for the reader – than relying on a Google search or Wikipedia as sole source of our research.
Gillian Hamer is author to Crimson Shore and three previous novels, The Charter, Closure and Complicit.
More information can be found at her website www.gillianhamer.com or you can keep up to date with her on Twitter @Gillyhamer.