Monthly Archives: September 2011
There is a long-held belief that applying quicklime to a buried body will accelerate decomposition. Maybe it is the use of quicklime or slack lime in outhouses to control odor but it does not cause rapid decomposition as reported in many sources. This fact has been documented by scientific research since the 1930′s at least.
The preservation of tissue is the result of dehydration which does not allow for bacterial growth normally seen in decomposition. The more lime used, the better the preservation. When mixed with water and air (as in a shallow grave) can cause a shrinkage of tissue and the lime may even have a solvent effect but connective tissue. bone, hair, etc would not be damaged much.
I’m not suggesting that bodies buried in quicklime will look pristine but they will not rapidly deteriorate as some criminals believe. Lime does not deter animal scavenging either. I have done studies on bodies buried in quicklime and have seen rodent burrowing within a few months of burial.
If your novel contains a burial with quicklime you should be aware of its preservation effects. If you want to use the misinformation to your advantage then have your killer use it to destroy evidence. Then when they discover that it helped to preserve the body maybe they have to take more drastic steps to thwart the police.
I just received this announcement so sorry about the short notice. For my Colorado/Wyoming readers you may be very interested in attending this free conference at Regis University in Arvada (Denver Metro) Colorado. It looks like they have a lot of interesting presentations scheduled. This might be a great opportunity for you to make some contacts and get some story ideas (sadly I won’t be there ). If you can’t make it this year check back with Regis for the 7th annual conference in 2012. You can register for this conference by contacting Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sapce is LIMITED!!
Every other Tuesday I’ll be posting an article on The Crime Fiction Collective BLOG. Check out the latest posting here.
I just thought I would share some images of a cool antique fingerprint kit that belonged to a criminalist named Ed Tangen in Boulder, Colorado during the 1930′s and 40′s.
Not unless your novel is based in a pre-WWI era. This is one of those terminology mistakes that seems to have kept a foot hold in modern crime and suspense thrillers. I’m listening to an audio book during my commute and the NYT best-selling author has referenced the smell of Cordite several times in the modern tale. Perhaps it’s a little thing that a lot of readers may not notice but it is a glaring error to knowledgeable readers. The fact that such a well regarded author (one with a reputation for doing good research) makes this mistake tells me that many other authors may make the same error. Truthfully, it’s a simple error to make but even easier to avoid.
Cordite was a type of smokeless propellant for firearm cartridges developed by the British from the early 1890′s to about the end of WWI when better smokeless powders were developed. It was still used in heavy guns (like tanks) to varying degrees but it is not produced anymore and certainly not for modern firearms. It produces an acrid smell like burnt acetone if you can imagine that. Modern smokeless powders produce a much less noticeable odor. The smell of modern powders don’t “hang in the air” unless you’ve discharged dozens or hundreds of rounds in a confined space. That’s not to say a seasoned CSI or detective couldn’t detect an odor after a few shots were fired but it just wouldn’t be as pungent or last very long (minutes) in most cases.
So if you’re writing a modern novel avoid descriptions like “After emptying his magazine at the knife wielding thug, Butch Big-guns nearly gagged on the curtain of cordite hanging in the air”. You are of course welcome to use the character name Butch Big-guns if so inclined
Apparently the answer is YES! Following a recent military plane crash in Chile, authorities used Apple’s Find My iPhone App to locate the position of the crash and the bodies of the victims after their plane plunged in the ocean. Amazingly, the phone components survived what the Chilean Military classified as a high fragmentation impact off the coast. None of the recovered plane fragments found so far are over 50cm in size! GPS based hardware and software are becoming more popular by the day. Everything from phones, cars, wrist watches, even pet trackers utilize this advanced technology.
This brings up some interesting issues for your novel. Your characters may be tracked depending on the gadgets they are carrying. This may be something you want or need to consider (depending on whether or not you want them found). I have never conducted any studies on the survivability (time and function) of a buried electronic device (but now I plan to). My guess is that devices buried (with people) in generally arid environments will survive longer than wet areas but the above case example seems to challenge even that assumption. As a writer I think you’d be safe to assume that a signal could be detected for at least several days if not longer.
Devices like these can also be used to locate suspects. Not only can they provide real-time location data they can also tell you where a suspect has been. Here are two examples of how you might use that information in your novel. Say you suspect’s cell phone is pinging off a cell tower in a remote area at midnight. If they have no reason for being there then it may indicate the location of a body dump, burial, or some other interesting activity. People don’t generally go anywhere without their cell phones and criminals are no different. In the heat of the moment the idea of leaving their cell phone behind would likely not occur to them. Another scenario would be tracking the movement of a device. If your suspect’s alibi is that he was attending a business conference in an adjoining state while his wife was murdered it would look awfully suspicious if his cell phone is hitting towers along the highway in the middle of the night going home and then returning to the conference.
However you choose to work these devices into your storyline you should always remember that they are present. As you are writing your scene ask yourself how that device might be used by the police to track it. Alternatively, could your suspect use the same technology to lead the police on a wild goose chase (like leaving it on a subway car while they get off to commit a crime and then get back on the train and retrieve it)? Just some things to think about.
I’m not sure if these exist in foreign countries for my far-flung subscribers but in the United States most law enforcement agencies offer a mini-semester of classes designed to expose civilians to the inner workings of the department. Programs vary but many are at least 10-12 weeks long and meet at least 1-2 nights a week. Each night you get a lecture on and hands on exposure to the various sections of their operations like SWAT, the crime lab, patrol, bomb squad (if applicable), and other specialized units.
It is a chance to ask questions and make connections with a varied group of law enforcement professionals. My crime lab lectures always seemed to follow SWAT and it sucked. How are you supposed to compete with automatic rifles, cool tactical stuff, and a live flash bang demonstration? Now if they let me bring a corpse into the lab or throw a bunch of blood around I’d hold my own but fingerprint reagents and shoe prints fall a little short I think. Maybe it’s just me.
All kidding aside, a police academy is well worth your time as an author. This is especially true if your novel is set in the same location. The sessions I have been at were very lively and the officers encourage a lot of questions. That’s the point really; to answer any and all questions about police operations. Many agencies will post their schedules and have a registration form online. If you live in a small community that doesn’t offer an academy try getting into one with a major metropolitan area. Some agencies restrict their classes to citizens but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Hi everyone. I began this BLOG in the middle of May with the simple goal of adding to the discussion of forensics for fiction (and non-fiction) crime writers and providing a fresh voice. I’ve been very happy with the level of hits (although I have nothing to compare it to so maybe I’m pathetically low compared to others) but I just wanted to make sure everyone is getting what they need from this site. So now I pose this question to all of you. Do you find the site valuable and/or what would make it better?
Starting out I’ve adopted the Joe Friday approach (just the facts) to convey the information. Is this working? Would you rather have personal stories and such sprinkled in as well or just keep it encyclopedic in nature? I want you to get the most out of it so let me know what you’re looking for and how I can make the site better! As always, I really appreciate you visiting. Tom
There are some “experts” out there that believe forensic science is a modern creation. The truth of the matter is that aspects of forensics have been around since the at least the 17th Century. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if you think about it. Murder is older than Cain and Abel. Mankind has always had an interest in understanding crime to identify the guilty and administer justice.
In 1895 Dr. Eduard Piotrowski published a scientific paper entitled Concerning origin, shape, direction, and distribution of the bloodstains following head wounds caused by blows. Dr. Piotrowski wanted to understand how bloodstains were formed, their appearance from various attacks, and bloodstains found on an offender among other questions. To test his theories Dr. Piotrowski constructed large paper walls to capture the bloodstains created by killing live rabbits. His study is filled with numerous color plates showing the results of his experiments. He had an artist friend draw the aftermath of each attack. This wasn’t a random or disorganized effort. Dr. Piotrowski varied the weapons (he used rocks, hammers, hatchets), position of the attacker, and direction of the blows.
Undoubtedly, local law enforcement (and most people) would not approve of these experiments today but back then it was not uncommon. Dr. Piotrowski noted a number of findings that we commonly discuss today in criminal trials. He noted the lack, or apparent lack, of bloodstains on the offender in some attacks, observations on cast-off stains and blood drop directionality, to name a few. From a purely scientific perspective (setting aside the animal cruelty issues) it is a very interesting study and I’m sure was very valuable to detectives and medical experts of the day.
If you are writing a historical crime novel remember that forensic science is not a modern form of science. True, our technology and understanding of certain events have certainly improved but it is all time relative. There is nothing wrong with having characters perform certain forensic exams even if they are irrelevant by today’s standards. In fact, you might even want to have your characters “invent” a new test based loosely on modern exams (making your character appear to be ahead of the times).