History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 June 2013

Forensic Detection & the Historical Sleuth

In a blog interview I did around the release of  The Paris Affair, Heather Webb asked a question that got me to thinking about forensics in historical mysteries. So much of present day mysteries, in books, on television, in movies, involves analyzing forensic evidence. My Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch have no CSIs, medical examiners, or forensic anthropologists to assist them in gathering and analyzing data. On the other hand, even without 21st century technology sleuths can still forensic evidence. C.S. Harris has a doctor character whose analysis of corpses is often of key help to Sebastian St. Cyr. The Victorian Sherlock Holmes was, as my father liked to say, a classic empiricist, his solutions built from the data he gathers. Both John Watson and Mary Russell frequently record him bemoaning the lack of data.

Like other literary investigators  in the 19th century and earlier, Malcolm and Suzanne look at footprints, find stands of hair or threads of fabric caught on cobblestones of table legs or left behind on sheets. Of course they can’t do DNA or chemical analysis, but they can do is compare the color of the hair or fabric or look at where the mud left behind by a shoe might have come from. If they’re really lucky someone drops a distinctive earring. They can use lividity and rigor to roughly arrive at time of death They can sometimes determine from a wound whether the killer is left or right handed.

Of course as a writer there are times the lack of sophisticated forensic analysis presents challenges in how one's detectives will solve the mystery. On the other hand, sometimes it can complicate matters in a good way. A killer in a crime of impulse, who probably would not be wearing gloves, would most likely to caught much more easily today than in the days before fingerprinting, let alone DNA analysis.

Writers, how do you deal with the lack of modern day technology in your books? Readers, what are some of your favorite examples of forensic analysis in an historical setting?

photo: Raphael Coffey

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read Kieran Sheilds' books?

The Truth of All Things and A Study in Revenge?

7:51 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I found "Corpse: Nature, Forensics, And The Struggle To Pinpoint Time Of Death" by Jessica Snyder Sachs captivating. I think she did a great job of using our modern knowledge to comment on the historical view of temperature, rigor, lividity, and corpse fauna. She also gives clear examples of how a corpse might reveal how it was handled after death.

I've not had a chance to delve into primary sources of forensics, but would be interested if there is a vetted list gathered somewhere.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I haven't read it, Jan Marie. Is it a novel or nonfiction?

1:25 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sounds like a wonderful book, Scott - thanks! I too would love to see a vetted list of primary sources on historical forensics.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Rappleyea said...

I really enjoy Harris's doctor with his forensic analysis, and David Dickinson writes some good procedural historical mysteries with his Lord Powerscourt investigating. However, I much prefer to read the more active type of spy mysteries that Malcolm and Suzanne get into with their historical background. History, spies and romance are the ultimate trifecta!

2:10 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Glad you like spy mysteries, Rappleyea! I do as well obviously :-). And I enjoy writing the scenes where Malcolm and Suzanne investigate by interviewing suspects. But it is a fun challenge to weave in the forensic details.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historical mysteries, Tracy.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Jan Marie! I'll look for them.

4:02 PM  

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