by Jamie Freveletti
With the advent of television shows like CSI and others, those writing detective novels and crime scene investigators are under increased pressure to write details about crime detection. Which is not to say that CSI depicts in any way the actual steps that go into an investigation. I've been to many seminars put forth by forensic scientists and all roll their eyes at some of the more incredible plot lines in the television show. Likewise, many thrillers stretch the truth and the abilities of the tools out there for crime detection. In fact, there are some tools that simply don't exist, but have become embedded into the collective unconsciousness to such an extent that audiences believe they do.
I ran into this latter problem when writing my first, Running from the Devil. In that novel, my protagonist, Emma Caldridge, is on an airplane that's downed in the Colombian jungle. The paramilitary group that downed the plane arrange to take away the airplane's flight recorder and then bomb the remains, making it difficult for investigators to find the wreckage. Early manuscript readers, though, didn't believe that a plane's wreckage would be difficult to find. All seemed to think that a simple google earth search would reveal its exact location quickly.
Not so. In fact, there are hundreds of airplanes that crash and are never recovered or found. Most are in the Pacific Northwest in America, where the wooded areas and mountainous regions do not lend themselves to easy access, and others in countries with areas like the jungle, where dense foliage block any chance of finding it. In order to deal with the readers' lack of credulity about a fact that was actually true, I wrote in an official of the US organization in charge of finding downed planes and had him recite the actual statistics to an (equally incredulous) main character. Problem solved.
Luckily for most authors, there are now classes and workshops arranged by trusted sources that will teach you all you need to know about crime scene detection and give it to you straight. Not only are these classes informative, but they're a lot of fun. The trick to finding them is to scan the events pages of associations like the International Thriller Writers (ITW) or the museums in your area. I recently received a link from the Natural History Museum in London that is putting on a terrific forensic investigation evening on June 24th. In this evening, one can view a crime scene and learn how to determine date and time of death by insect collection (complete with maggots! Love these creatures and used them in Running from the Devil) as well as tips on how to identify sex and height of skeletal remains. I wish I lived in London. If I did, I'd attend this one for sure.
But wherever you live, if you're writing crime you'll eventually have to learn the basics of crime scene detection. Gruesome as it sounds, it's actually quite interesting.
Whatever you do, try your best to get it right or you will receive emails setting you straight. Just about every writer has had a mistake or two surface in their manuscripts and there are whole websites devoted to the continuity mistakes in movies. I guess that's reassuring. Even Hollywood gets it wrong sometimes.