Writing Tips and Tricks

Getting it Right: Where Crime Fiction meets Real Life.

Being a CSI for a Day

My earliest memories of crime fiction were the evenings spent curled up on the sofa with my mum and sister watching CSI. Every Saturday night (we have to record it, you see, as it was on too late for us kids), we’d be poised and ready for the latest investigation, and I can still remember the excitement with the drums of New York, those distinctive chords of Las Vegas, or the roar of ‘Yeaaaaaah’ for Miami! (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have homework to do, now! It’s also my first introduction to The Who, so an added bonus!) We were totally hooked as the teams would use the evidence to uncover the truth; we loved the mystery of the story unfolding, the piecing together of the puzzle – so much so that my sister was actually going to study forensic science for a while before she decided to investigate some older bones and study archaeology. And then the next day, I’d rush into school to chat to my best friend about everything that happened in the show.

It’s safe to say, CSI captured my imagination a bit.

So, imagine my delight, stuck in Lockdown 2.0, when I discovered that The Crime Lab – run by former Scotland Yard detectives Steve and Kate Gaskin – was organising a whole day all about what it’s like to investigate a crime! True Crime Festival was an immersive day with forensics experts and former police officers, talking all things crime scene investigation (or scene of crime (officers) (SOCO) in the UK).

We started off the day talking about fingerprints – did you know that koalas have the same fingerprints as us? I see a Aussie-based crime caper coming on… And that if you’re an identical twin, you’ll have the exact same DNA as your twin, but your fingerprints will different? We got to take our own set of fingerprints – and get really messy – whilst also dusting for fingerprints on evidence!

Totally nerving out taking a set of my fingerprints. This was amazing!

Next up we heard from Dr Brian Chappell MBE, talking all about innovative fingerprints and evidence collecting techniques that are being pioneered in the campaign against poaching. It was absolutely fascinating to discover how new technology is helping to catch criminals where resources are scarce but where the skills are drastically needed to stop this devastating trade! So, for example, we saw this new gel transfer that is able to lift not only fingerprints, but DNA and fibres off seized trafficked items, such as an elephant tusk or pangolin scale, which is vital evidence to catching those responsible.

Then Tracey Alexander talked all about DNA. I must admit some of this went over my head – chemistry wasn’t my strongest subject at school – but we heard all about the DNA database, which covers 10% of the population in the UK! And if the police run a DNA sample against the database, they have a 63% chance of finding a match! I was very lucky to hear a talk by Sir Alec Jeffreys when I was at school, as he came to open our new science labs, but it really puts it into perspective what an innovation DNA fingerprinting was!

It’s probably a bit weird that my favourite session of the day was on blood spatter! How the different patterns of blood spatter can tell the story of what happened in the scene; how you can tell if someone was shot or stabbed just by the blood spatter evidence left behind. I was also left feeling rather chuffed as I guessed the bonus-points factor of why the spray was all over the wall in regular streaks: arterial blood spatter! (Such a nerd…)

 The only thing that matters is the evidence.

Horatio Caine, CSI Miami

This is the point where readers are thinking, This fascination in blood, bullets and all this is a bit weird – she’s definitely a psychopath. However, I can tell you that after the test we did in the next session, I’m not even remotely psychopathic! Steve lead a session all about psychopaths and their criminal tendencies, which was quite revealing. Did you know that 4% of the world’s top CEOs are pyschopaths? Not that surprising when you think about it, eh?

And then the piste-de-resistance of the day was that the team had recreated a virtual crime scene where we were tasked with solving the crime. I don’t have to tell you how much I enjoyed it – matching up the DNA profiles, comparing fingerprints, even some forensic dentistry and blood spatter analysis. And you’ll be chuffed to know that I guess the right guy.

Although I work in crime fiction, I think it’s so important to get a sense of the world of police investigation so that you can recreate that with authenticity in your novels, but also share with the reader the ins and outs of going through all the evidence and piecing together the story. I mean, I needed the emergency Freddo we were given in our packs, as I’d been using so much brain power all day.

Research is such an important part of writing, and although the balance between fact and fiction leans towards the gripping and the thrilling in crime fiction, I feel that I can approach my author’s manuscripts with a new zeal now, picking up elements of the investigations that I wouldn’t have before.

If you’re a true crime fan, or even an avid crime fiction reader, and definitely if you’re crime fiction writer, The Crime Lab’s is a bottomless resource of facts and fascination all about the world of criminal investigation, so I urge you to jump on one of their Wine&Crime evenings! Your novels will be so much the richer for it.

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