Drum roll . . . Five ARCs of Splinter in the Blood are being just plain given away on Goodreads. Just follow the blood trail . . .👣 ONLY A FEW HOURS LEFT!
Meet the killer who will get under your skin.
"Loved this. A great new addition to the crime genre." ~ Liz Loves Books
Bodies in the water: the importance of diatoms
Diatoms are algae, normally microscopic, although certain species of diatom can grow to around 2mm in length. They are found just about anywhere there’s moisture: in the sea, in freshwater, even in soil....
From a forensic perspective, diatoms are really useful in the investigation of drowning.
First, if diatoms are present, it’s a good indication that the person was breathing when they went into the water. Diatoms are inhaled with the water, they pass into the bloodstream and thence to the body’s tissues. They can most easily be detected in the bone marrow of the long bones and their presence will establish that the person drowned.
But that’s not all, as well as telling us how a person died they can also sometimes give an indication of where they died, because different species of diatoms live in different types of water. So, if a body is found washed up on the beach but the diatoms in their bone marrow are a fresh water species, then it would be a fair assumption that the person had died elsewhere before their body was disposed of at sea.
Unfortunately, things aren’t always straightforward. Diatoms live for a long time and can be found in the bone marrow many years after inhalation. They can also be absorbed into the body via the gut, so may have been swallowed rather than inhaled.
Because of this there is some debate as to their usefulness, but it is normal practice to take a sample of the water that a body is found in, as a match between the diatoms in the body and those in the water would be supportive evidence that the person drowned in the water they were found in.
Any questions or comments – we love to hear from you!
There’s no right or wrong way – only YOUR way
You find a lot of writing advice on the Web. I often dip in to these myself, particularly if it’s by a well-known author. Like many writers, I’m fascinated by other writers’ process, and knowing that they, too struggle with their writing can be helpful, even – perversely – encouraging. I have well-thumbed copies of Margaret Atwood’s NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD, and Stephen King’s ON WRITING on my office bookshe...lf, and I enjoy hearing different perspectives so much that I attend bookshop events whenever I can spare the time, to hear writers on writing.
Advice is helpful, but absolutes are not. In my early days as an emerging writer, I could be discouraged for weeks by a famous writer sternly telling an audience ‘You must always’, or ‘You should never’. But as I attended more readings, I realised that although a highly successful writer might THINK they have all the answers - that their way is the only way – the next successful writer at the next event is equally convinced that their (completely opposite) view is the only way to go!
A couple of days ago, I replied to a tweet by a writer I admire enormously, and who is very successful, with good reason. But he’d written a short advice piece on making a start with your writing, a strong part of the message being, ‘Just begin. . . Don’t make a plan.’
My reply: ‘There's no right or wrong way - each writer has to find their own way. Which might be a different way for every story. Sometimes a plan is exactly what is needed and sometimes you begin at the end. Often the greatest challenge is to finish.’
#ForensicsFriday and an opportunity for writers to use misdirection . . .
Anyone with an interest in science and crime will know about Edmund Locard’s Exchange Principle which tells us that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. But although forensic science is all about looking for these contact traces at the crime scene we shouldn’t forget that Locard’s Exchange Principle is happening all the time, not just when a crime is being committed.
Sometimes contact transfers can occur which make it appear that someone / something is linked to a scene, when in reality they aren’t. When this happens we call it contamination (or cross-contamination – the terms are used interchangeably).
There are two main types of contamination:
Primary transfer, where things are allowed to come into direct contact with each other. An example of this would be if a suspect is returned to the scene of a crime, because any subsequent forensic examination to establish a link between the suspect and the scene would now be pointless – we know he’s been there, because the investigators took him there!
Secondary transfer, where there is indirect contact. This would involve the contamination being transferred via an intermediary. For example, an officer who has attended the crime scene then arrests a suspect, transferring trace from the scene to the suspect. Or a suspect and victim are transported in the same car (not at the same time, obviously…). In these instances it would be possible for trace evidence, such as fibres, found on the suspect to have actually got there from the intermediary.
Contamination can happen during the scene examination, due to incorrect packaging of exhibits or during analysis at the forensic lab.
The possibility of contamination having occurred will render trace evidence unusable in court. This is because an alternative explanation for the presence of the transferred material can be offered.
In 2008 Barry George won his appeal against conviction for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando when it was acknowledged that a particle of gunshot residue found in the pocket of his jacket could have got there as a result of contamination.
In March 2012 a rape case was dropped when it became apparent that contamination had occurred at a forensic laboratory. Adam Scott from Exeter had been charged with a rape that had happened the previous year in Manchester, even though he claimed never to have been to the city.
So, if you work in crime scene examination or forensic science (or if you’re a writer looking for a plot twist) it’s important to remember that EVERY contact leaves a trace.
[Photos show trace, including fibres, hair and small particles on fabrics under natural and UV light, and a gun being fired. Note gunsmoke, and potential for GSR on the hand.]
DITCH THE DULL - (Avoiding the pitfalls of ‘procedure’ in crime and thriller writing)
Skip the dull bits (your readers will)...
But you have to really understand it yourself to do that (*See Einstein, below)
(We REALLY don’t need to know, step-by-step, how a GC/MS is used.)
Edit and edit, and edit down
*Einstein reputedly said, ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.’
(In fact, he *didn’t* say that. It’s paraphrased from Richard Feynman). What he did say was, ‘I didn’t say half the things they quote me as saying on the internet.’ (Naw...!)
Which carries two important lessons, dear writers:
If you do research on the internet – check your sources!
Sometimes if a thing is plausible, that’s good enough
(And sometimes, it isn’t . . . )
There will always be a few who will throw your book into the fire because you got some minor detail of anaesthesia wrong. But where do you stop? Would YOU really hate a book because it didn’t show the interminable meetings, and report-writing, photocopying, and cross-checking, and filing (to say nothing of worries about budget and staffing) involved in a real investigation? My guess is you’d be more likely to hate it if it DID!
There’s a large measure of trust in the relationship between reader and writer. It’s your job to decide how much detail you need to establish, and keep, that trust.
It's #ForensicsFriday !
DNA – Keep it in the family.
We’re all familiar with the use of DNA profiling in criminal cases – the comparison of DNA found at crime scenes with the DNA of offenders held on a database in order to identify the person who left the DNA at the scene. But what happens when the database doesn’t turn up a match? Does it mean the case can’t be solved? Well, not always....
In 2000 forensic scientist Jonathan Whitaker was working on a cold case from 1973. Three teenage girls had been raped and strangled, their bodies found in woodland in South Wales. The investigation at the time, although extensive, had not identified the perpetrator. Whitaker was able to use samples from the original case to build up a DNA profile, which he ran through the National DNA database, but no match was found.
The case stayed with Whitaker, and a year later he had an idea. Each person’s DNA is unique to them, but because we inherit our DNA from our parents it is more likely to be similar to a close family member’s DNA than to a complete stranger.
Whitaker was given permission to search the database looking for DNA similar to that found at the crime scene, and this time he found a profile from a man called Joseph Kappen, whose DNA was a 50% match.Investigation led detectives to Kappen’s father, but he had died ten years previously. His body was exhumed to obtain a DNA sample and the murders were finally solved.
This technique became known as familial searching, and it was soon used to solve a live case.
In March 2003 lorry driver Michael Little suffered a heart attack when a brick thrown from a motorway bridge smashed the windscreen of his lorry and struck him on the chest. DNA from the brick did not match any of the profiles on the National DNA database, however a familial search yielded an 80% match – very close indeed. When police checked the family of the person on the database they identified 19 year-old shop worker Craig Harman.
Harman admitted manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison. He had no prior criminal record and would not have been identified without familial searching of the database.
‘Tis the season to be self-indulgent, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I indulge in a bit of whimsy. Today is the tenth day of Christmas, and all you carollers out there know what that means, now don’t you? Yep! It’s Ten Lords a Leaping – and talking of whimsy . . .
Lord Peter Wimsey, who also labours under the burdensome name Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, has got to be the first on my Tenth Day list. Probably the most popular of all the lords on this list, a...
Let’s talk Weather
Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that in my last #WritingTipsWednesday I described weather as one of the ‘boring bits’ of conversation. Well . . . it depends *how* the weather is used. I promised I’d share with you a wonderful scene in THE GREAT GATSBY which illustrates this perfectly....
With apologies to F Scott Fitzgerald, I’ve taken an extract from the novel, and removed the additional description and insights in the characters’ thoughts and feelings from the original text.
Nick Carraway (our eminently reliable narrator) observes a chance meeting between Gatsby and Daisy:
‘Oh, hello, old sport,’ Gatsby said.
‘It’s stopped raining.’
‘Has it?’ He repeated the news to Daisy. ‘What do you think of that? It’s stopped raining.’
‘I’m glad, Jay.’
Dull, isn’t it? I mean, what’s the point? How does this inform character or story, or move the plot along? But of course there is far more in the original. Here’s how Fitzgerald actually wrote it:
“There was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.
‘Oh, hello, old sport,’ he said, as if he hadn't seen me for years. I thought for a moment he was going to shake hands.
‘It’s stopped raining.’
‘Has it?’ When he realised what I was talking about, that there were twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room, he smiled like a weatherman, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light, and repeated the news to Daisy. ‘What do you think of that? It’s stopped raining.’
‘I’m glad, Jay.’ Her throat full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.”
The language is heightened, as is the emotion. ‘He literally glowed’ might seem over the top, but I’m sure we’ve all seen someone in such a state of bliss that they seem to throw out an inner light. Gatsby isn’t really reacting to the weather, of course – he doesn’t give a fig for the weather – doesn’t even know what Nick is talking about at first, his mind is so preoccupied with the real cause of his ecstasy. And that is an unexpected and long abandoned hope of rediscovering joy. And the all-important suspense I mentioned as key in an earlier blog is there too, because despite the ‘twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room’, we as readers are completely in the dark, wondering what the hell has gone on between those two? ~MM
Today on #ForensicsFriday:
Footwear impressions (sometimes called shoe prints but NEVER footprints) can be found at most crime scenes. Often they’re visible, but can also be found using the same techniques used to enhance fingerprints. They can even be recovered by using static electricity to lift dust out of carpets....
Once a footwear mark is recovered it can be conclusively linked to the shoe that made it. This is done by comparing the size, pattern and wear of the shoe (people walk differently, so wear down their shoes differently), but what really makes the footwear unique is the damage features found on it.
Damage features are the little nicks and cuts that happen when you step on things like little sharp stones, thorny twigs or pieces of broken glass. There’s usually lots of them on the sole of a shoe, and their shape and distribution is completely random.
Years ago I worked on a series of burglaries at pubs in and around a fairly isolated rural town. The same footwear marks were found at all the scenes, but the local CID had absolutely no idea who was responsible.
At about the seventh or eighth burglary we had a breakthrough, a different footwear impression, one that had hardly any damage features – our burglar had new trainers!
I’m a bit of a geek about footwear, so I could tell the detectives the make and model of trainer from the sole pattern. All they then had to do was visit the only shoe shop in town and find out who had recently bought a pair of those trainers.
When the detectives went to the man’s house to arrest him, the new trainers were on his feet and the old ones were in the dustbin outside.
We love to hear your comments and questions, so don't be shy!
Welcome to #WritingTipsWednesday
INTRODUCING CHARACTERS 2 – Take it slow . . .
You know that person you meet, who wants to tell you their life story after the first nod and polite ‘How d’you do?’ Most of us don’t want a life precis the first time we meet someone – it’s rude, intrusive, annoying and, well - a bit weird. We like to get to know a new acquaintance, not have them tell us how interesting, intelligent, well-informed, successful and unbearably wonderful they are. Th...e natural reaction is to think, ‘Well, thanks for that, but I prefer to judge for myself.’
In life, we get to know people from short conversations, their work, and the way they treat others – from the bosses to the cleaning staff.
As in life, so it is in fiction – except in fiction, we can cut out all the boring bits about the weather and football, and what’s going on in the TV soaps. Because conversations – even the mundane ones – in fiction must earn their place. Each exchange should inform us as readers about the character of one or all of those engaged in the conversation. At the very least, it should move the story or plot on. The best stories – literary or genre – contain mystery, about the unfolding story, of course, but more importantly, about the people in it. As readers we want to know their secrets, what lies hidden in their past, what makes them behave the way they do. But not all at once. Which is why writers need to take it slow.
I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard: conversations between his characters have pace and vitality, and we find out more about the them from what they say (or don’t say), how they say it – and, importantly, what they *do*, than we could from any amount of backstory info-dump. (TIP: Avoid backstory info-dump at all costs, dear writers.)
For a masterclass in how to convey character through dialogue and action, read the first few pages of Leonard’s GET SHORTY. Find the last few paragraphs before the section break, beginning: ‘In the car driving the few blocks over to the Victor Ho¬tel on Ocean Drive,’ and ending, ‘Didn’t say one word to him.’ I’ve read this short sequence many times, and it still makes my heart sing.
But I don’t agree with everything Leonard says: the first of his (in)famous Ten Rules for Good Writing is, ‘Never open a book with weather.’ The novel that most made me want to be a writer was JANE EYRE, which opens on a wet November afternoon...
Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I described weather as one of the ‘boring bits’ of conversation. Well . . . it depends *how* the weather is used. There is a wonderful scene in THE GREAT GATSBY which illustrates this perfectly. But heeding my own advice on taking it slow and preserving the mystery, I’ll hold off sharing that with you till the weekend. See you then for a supplementary #WritingTip. ~MM
A seasonal story for #ForensicsFriday
Merry Christmas FORENSIC DENDROCHRONOLOGISTS!
What, I hear you ask, is a forensic dendrochronologist?...
Dendrochronology is the study and dating of tree rings. As trees grow, they annually produce rings within their wood - one ring for every year the tree has been alive. Weather conditions and the availability of water affect how well the tree will grow each season, so when conditions are favourable the tree will grow more and the ring produced that year will be wider than when things aren’t quite so good.
If you know when the tree stopped growing (was chopped down) you can track back through the years and get an indicator of environmental conditions by looking at the width of the tree’s rings. Databases have been created using rings from known dates and geographical areas, and unknown samples can be dated by comparing them with the known databases.
Dendrochronology is used extensively in archeology to date timber in buildings, and in art, to date old paintings by European artists, which were often painted on wood.
But what’s that got to do with forensic science? Well, dendrochronology can be used to compare wood from a crime scene and help to establish where it came from.
The Lindbergh baby kidnapping is probably the most famous case in which the science of tree rings was used. A home-made ladder was found at the scene. A suspect was eventually arrested, and dendrochronology established that the ladder had been made using floorboards from the suspect’s attic.
I’ve only used forensic dendrochronology once in my career, and what looked to be a real non-starter of a case turned out rather well.
One miserable late-November morning I was sent to a Christmas tree plantation. A bumpy ride down a dirt track in the plantation owner’s 4x4 took me to a stump-covered hillside that until a few days earlier had been verdant with Christmas trees.
It was the sort of job to make a CSI’s heart sink. I took some photographs, but there didn’t seem to be much more I could do. Later that week Christmas trees appeared for sale in a local market; it was obvious where they’d come from, but how to prove it?
Enter the forensic dendrochronologist who quickly established that the rings in the tree trunks matched the stumps at the plantation. ~HP