Forensic Science in Fiction

Douglas Corleone is the author of three crime novels published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. His debut novel One Man’s Paradise was nominated for the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel. A former New York City defense attorney, Doug now lives in the Hawaiian Islands, where he is currently at work on his next novel.  You can visit him online at www.douglascorleone.com. His most recent novel, Last Lawyer Standing, has just been released.

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There’s no escaping technology.  Crime writers know this as well as anyone.  Modern law enforcement agencies use state-of-the-art techniques to solve all types of crimes, from burglary to rape and murder.  So if you write contemporary crime fiction, it is vital that you learn the basics of forensic science.

I was lucky.  From a very early age I realized I wanted to be a criminal – um, a criminal defense attorney, that is.  So by the time I reached college, I was already well-read in crime fiction and had a good idea of which courses I’d find most interesting.  I majored in the administration of justice, which allowed me to take multiple courses related to forensic science.  During those courses, I learned how to find and gather latent fingerprints, and how to use them for purposes of comparison to identify a perpetrator.  Same with impression evidence, such as shoe and tire prints.  I even picked up some cutting-edge material, namely lip print analysis, which I would use more than a decade later when writing my debut novel One Man’s Paradise.

In subsequent books, I revisited other parts of my forensics classes.  For Night on Fire, I heavily researched arson investigation and refreshed my memory about terms such as “point of origin” and “accelerants.”  For my most recent release, Last Lawyer Standing, I researched ballistics, which investigators use to determine whether a bullet was fired from a particular make and model, if not from a particular gun.  In all three books (and in my years as a defense attorney), I relied heavily on toxicology reports.

Police procedurals regained popularity in recent years, thanks largely to television shows such as CSI and its numerous spinoffs.  In other words, police procedurals owe a good deal to new technologies utilized in forensic science.  Readers and television viewers today are interested in learning how crimes are solved.  Not just by knocking on doors and sweating suspects under the hot lights deep in the bowels of a police department, but by analyzing bloodstain patterns and cutting into a dead body to determine whether the victim was already gone by the time she fell down the stairs and broke her neck.

If you’re a writer interested in learning more about forensics, I recommend picking up a few books intended just for storytellers.  Forensics by D.P. Lyle is part of the Howdunit series of books published by Writer’s Digest.  Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, includes sections on forensic science, as does Now Write!: Mysteries.  (Full disclosure: An essay and exercise authored by yours truly can be found in Now Write!: Mysteries, starting on page 288.  The essay is titled “Forensics: The Cutting Edge”.)