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Forensic Speak: How To Write Realistic Crime Dramas by Jennifer Dornbush (book review).

June 26, 2019 | By | Reply More

Always be a little careful about what you wish for. I was having an e-yap with Ken Lee over at Michael Wiese Productions on how British crime and medical shows have their key cast and scriptwriters given some time in the real world to observe how the real people do their jobs and have technical advisors to make sure they don’t make mistakes on screen.

From the evidence I’ve seen of American shows and the mistakes made, I wouldn’t trust them as examples to be followed in real life. Whereas, over here where non-medical people having saved someone cite what they learnt from the likes of BBC1’s ‘Casualty’ that had them doing the right thing. Ken thought that I ought to look at one of their re-released 2013 books, ‘Forensic Speak: How To Write Realistic Crime Dramas’ by Jennifer Dornbush.

It’s not too far from our geek attitude of looking at books that don’t always follow in our general interest. Oddly, as I read, it then became obvious that even in Science Fiction, we ought to know some of the more basic stuff of real forensics. If nothing else, it might give some clues or not as to whether things can be analysed easier in the future.

Jennifer Dornbush explains in her introduction that her father was a small town medical examiner and in her younger years, although thought it a bit yucky, ended up with some practical experience. In her adult life, she got her formal training in Criminal Science Investigation and later thought a manual would be useful for guidance on the subject for writers. Two things she does point out is that much of what is shown on TV is condensed to fit into a time slot when in real life you’re in a queue of months waiting for tests to be completed.

I think any crime show is stuck by that confinement. However, to be truly knowledgeable, she says you need to have read 45 forensics textbooks and several classes on the subject as well as practical work. As such, this book is more of a sourcebook to get things right. I suspect the interest in this book will extend beyond scriptwriters and authors and to those who want to see if they are getting their facts right. So, lay down the yellow tape, keep people out of the crime scene and let’s dig in and examine the body. You’re only allowed to do this once because after that, the area will be contaminated by other people walking over it.

Over the 8 chapters, Dornbush looks at the various forensic techniques which are also accompanied by an examination of the terminology and some examples from American TV and film where they got it right and sometimes wrong. You can draw your own conclusions as why the same examples are used as to why these are not widespread.

You get taught the levels of evidence and how it doesn’t always quite direct to the murderer. It’s hardly surprising that non-sworn personal are pointed out as these are the consultants used in many an American TV show the police ask to help them although beyond being knowledgeable experts they have no police power. Something I found I’ve been getting wrong in that prone is face up on the floor when that is face down and the correct word is supine. You’re also taught the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner and they are radically different.

Some questions do tend to turn up when I go analytical. Take dental stone, which is used to make copies of footprints. As it heats up when it cures, I thought it must surely distort the print in some way. In the USA, if there is no central Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), as it’s managed in separate states, then how does the FBI cross-check prints?

Occasionally, there is the odd SF film reference. One thing that has always puzzled me is in the first ‘Men In Black’ film, Agent J has his fingerprints erased from his hands. Fingerprints are used for more than identification and provide a means to grip things. So without them, any of the MiB agents are likely to be not so good at holding things as normal people.

Dornbush literally leaves no bush unturned in what she covers from blood spatter to splatter, not the same thing, to the use of firearms and their effects. Oh, any show showing someone picking up a gun by putting a pencil in its barrel is contaminating evidence.

Dornbush points out in her end notes that she had some assistance in her samples from TV and film although the same examples do keep coming up. It would be interesting seeing a follow-up book where she points out just how much these same sources get seriously wrong and what they should have done. If forensics in American shows is going to improve then being shown correct procedure so things are improved has to be the way to go. As she points out in how court scenes are presented, jurors think they are CSI orientated purely from watching the ‘CSI’ TV series.

As I explained in my opening paragraph, American shows don’t or aren’t always as accurate as they should be with procedures. This book shows a lot of procedures beyond forensics, especially with American court procedures, although I wish she’d included how senate hearings are carried out and how legal they really are if forensic evidence is called. More so, as she covered every other legal procedure and you have to wonder how these senate hearings have any power without legal evidence.

I have come away from this book knowing a lot more than I did previously and that includes a few things that I just took for granted and didn’t think was wrong. We all learn from such books. I suspect the forensic side will be right wherever you are in the world although legal procedures might vary a bit from country to country. You have the evidence, my American jury, if you want more accurate shows using forensics then urge their writers to apply this book.

GF Willmetts

June 2019

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 263 page illustrated indexed oblong enlarged paperback. Price: $29.95 (US), £15.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-131-6)

check out website: www.mwp.com and www.jenniferdornbush.com

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Category: Books, Science

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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