Today my guest blogger is Gillian Hamer, author of a series of much praised crime novels. Here she is talking about research and the lengths she goes to achieve accuracy.
Making Research Count …
by 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.”
I am so glad someone gets it. Crime writing is incredibly difficult for a multitude of reasons, of which just a few have been mentioned above, but getting the research right must be up there at the top of the list.
The easiest way, in my mind at least, of spoiling a crime novel, and losing the reader, is a lack of authenticity. 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.
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, 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 fool proof and that back-to-basics policing is still always required.
So, my latest project is a move away from the science-based procedure and I 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’m only a few weeks into 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.
From a writer's 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. 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
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.