Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Early Detectives and First Forensics

Crime scene investigation has come a long way. Modern technology means that a microscopic bit of trace evidence is enough to catch a criminal. But way back when, before ballistics, before fingerprints, even before mug shots, detective work was an entirely different matter. Early forensic techniques were untried controversial theories, not proof—not yet. Luckily, history can supply plenty of examples of murderers and the men and women who tracked them down. Whether authors are recreating fact or spinning historical fiction, solving crime has never been more fascinating.

The Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, 2007, Putnam Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery) 

Dr. Adelia Aguilar is an oddity. She’s an independent woman, a highly-educated doctor, and the primary specialist in her field of study. Today, Adelia would simply be a coroner, examining bodies for evidence of how they met their end. But in her day and age—the year 1171, in Medieval Europe—Adelia is a “mistress of the art of death,” and most of her contemporaries would not hesitate to label her a witch and burn her at the stake. But Adelia is on a mission. Sent from Salerno, Italy, where women are allowed to study and practice medicine, to Cambridge, England, where women are expected to stay firmly in the home, Adelia and a few intelligent, enlightened companions are charged with solving the grisly murders of four children. Adelia’s examination of the bodies hints that the culprit may be among the pilgrims recently arrived at Cambridge. As Adelia narrows down the list of suspects, author Ariana Franklin introduces the readers to life in the Middle Ages—dirty, grim, ugly, but also populated by men and women not so different from you and me. The Mistress of the Art of Death is a sophisticated historical mystery.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr, 2006, Random House, originally published 1994 (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

In 1896, psychology is as much in its infancy as forensic science. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is an “alienist” in the parlance of the day, and he’s just been commissioned to lead an amateur team of sleuths and solve a series of gruesome murders that are plaguing Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A brutal killer is leaving the bodies of young male prostitutes strewn across the city, and so crime reporter John Moore, brothers Marcus and Lucius and their progressive forensic techniques, and first female detective Sarah Howard join Kreizler’s investigation. This motley crew works together seamlessly—looking into the lives of the victims, testing new forensics like fingerprinting, and building a profile of the criminal. The insights of Dr. Kreizler are brilliant, but will the team get a breakthrough before the killer strikes again? Chock-full of historical details about New York City at the end of the 19th century, from the delectable oysters at Delmonico’s to the immense class difference between rich and poor to the cameo appearances by top men of the time (like Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and Jacob Riis), The Alienist is both a gripping murder mystery and a distinct portrait of a historical time and place.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, 2010, Penguin Books (Nonfiction/ 20th Century American History/ True Crime) 

Modern forensics begins in Prohibition-era New York City, when Charles Norris is appointed Manhattan’s chief medical examiner in 1918. Norris is the first medical examiner trained in medicine, and he is determined that every medical examiner who comes after him will be a doctor and a scientist. He’s got his work cut out for him—poison is the weapon of choice among murderers, and very few poisons are traceable. Luckily, the city has just hired toxicologist Alexander Gettler, a man with a passion for chemistry who will go to any lengths to track down arsenic, cyanide, mercury, and their noxious friends carbon monoxide, thallium, and chloroform. As Prohibition marches on, bootleggers produce cheap whiskeys laced with more chemicals than alcohol. Americans, expecting a night of undercover fun, are drinking poison and dying. Gettler has to work harder to find the evidence that poison leaves behind, and Norris has to convince the nation to take forensic science seriously. Along the way, author and scientific journalist Deborah Blum treats readers to the scandalous death-by-poison cases of the time. The Poisoner’s Handbook is chock-full of murder and mayhem, packed with real heroes and true villains, and overflowing with fascinating ways to die.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale, 2008, Walker and Company (Nonfiction/ 19th Century British History/ True Crime)

One summer morning in 1860, the body of a little boy is found on the grounds of Road Hill House, a fine estate in the English countryside. This murder rocked Victorian England to its core. Everyone wanted to play detective. The art of detection was very new—detectives had existed in an official capacity for only a few years—but the public was fascinated by the new police work. Luminaries like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins immortalized the detective in their novels Bleak House (1853) and The Moonstone (1868). The inspiration for both books was Jack Whicher. It is this man who investigates the murder at Road Hill House, and it is this case that proves Whicher’s undoing. Because Whicher is up against more than just a murderer—he’s up against a Victorian society that is too shocked by his suspicions to accept his solution. The public’s awe of the new detective is fading fast, and there’s no guarantee that Whicher can prove his case in time. Author Kate Summerscale spins this tidbit of history with the drama and suspense usually reserved for a mystery novel. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a captivating chapter in the modern development of the detective.

The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective by J. North Conway, 2010, Lyons Press (Nonfiction/ 19th Century American History/ True Crime)

New York City has always been a tough town. But when you’re an Irish immigrant who escaped the notorious Five Points neighborhood to fight in the Civil War, join the city’s burgeoning police force, and rise to power through a combination of ruthless cunning and innovative detective work, things are tougher and more complicated than you could ever imagine. Such is the life story of Thomas Byrne, New York City’s premiere police chief during the 19th century. This biography by historical writer J. North Conway traces the career of the man who implemented now-standard crime-fighting techniques like mug shots and police line-ups and who got his best results when he “gave ’em the third degree,” a phrase he coined and which meant beating confessions out of suspects. Byrne solved the major crimes of his day—the case of “America’s Jack the Ripper,” the ballsy robbery of the impenetrable Manhattan Savings Bank, the theft and ransom of a millionaire’s dead body—but got caught up in the corrupt Tammany Hall-dominated politics of the day. Byrne was a complicated man with his own set of morals, and the story of his rise and inevitable fall is sensational, compelling history.

The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases by E.J. Wagner, 2006, Wiley Books (Nonfiction/ 19th Century British History/ True Crime) 

How accurate were Sherlock Holmes’ methods, really? He’s a fictional character, after all, working in the dark ages of the Victorian era before the invention of electricity, antibiotics, or automobiles. But by solving cases on the basis of tire marks, tobacco ash, and—yes—thumbprints and bullet trajectories, Holmes proves himself an important forerunner in the ever-important field of forensic science. Author, crime historian, and Holmes fanatic E.J. Wagner makes a magical match when she uses the works of Arthur Conan Doyle to explore early crime scene investigation methods. From the “real” hound of the Baskervilles to Holmes’ use of fingerprinting to Conan Doyle’s real-life contemporaries like the Bow Street Runners and brilliant-but-bigheaded pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, The Science of Sherlock Holmes guides us through the science’s early experiments and into the accepted practices. There are also old-fashioned legends and bizarre myths, vampires, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and lots of blood and guts. By combining the popularity of two forever-trendy subjects—Sherlock Holmes and forensic science—Wagner succeeds in shedding light on both, pleasing fans of both, and educating and entertaining absolutely everyone.

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