Review: Silent Witnesses by Nigel McCrery (4/5)

Wednesday, 6 August 2014
A crime scene. A murder. A mystery.

The most important person on the scene? The forensic scientist. And yet the intricate details of their work remains a mystery to most of us.

Silent Witnesses looks at the history of forensic science over the last two centuries, during which time a combination of remarkable intuition, painstaking observation and leaps in scientific knowledge have developed this fascinating branch of detection. Throwing open the casebook, it introduces us to such luminaries as 'The Wizard of Berkeley' Edward Heinrich, who is credited with having solved over 2000 crimes, and Alphonse Bertillon, the French scientist whose guiding principle 'no two individuals share the same characteristics' became the core of identification. Along the way, it takes us to India and Australia, Columbia and China, Russia, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. And it proves that, in order to solve ever more complicated cases, science must always stay one step ahead of the killer.

Police programmes with a focus on forensics are hugely popular, the CSI franchise getting some 30 million viewers at the height of its popularity. The realists of course know that actual real life forensics isn't like that, it's often laborious and very time consuming. The instantaneous results obtained by Horatio Caine and Mac Taylor don't reflect real life. And certainly not back a few hundred years ago when forensic science was just starting out.

This book took me a while to read because it's one I picked up and read a few chapters of and put down again. It's not something I wanted to read continuously not because it wasn't good just because I don't want to take in large amounts of detail all at once. The book is very informative, and would be perfect for somebody studying this field or someone looking to study the field. I remember my 6th form offering forensic science as a subject but it was a very tame version of the field and extremely amateurish (I didn't take it).

From the conception of forensic science through to present day we read about how the field has evolved. There are some really fantastic tales about early forensic science. A head being put on a pole in the hope a passerby would recognise it is one example. It's crazy to imagine things like that even happened. Moving on to the more advanced stuff and it really does blow my mind how many ways there are to solve a crime these days. You would think it would put off even the more hardcore of criminals. Everything from a hair, a bullet casing, a single drop of blood.. all of these things can identify a perpetrator.

What I especially liked is this book can be picked up, read and enjoyed by someone with even just a passing interest in this subject. Often I've picked up a book written about something I am vaguely interested in but I can never get past the jargon or superiority of the author in what they are writing about. This book is written in a very accessible way but at the same time even considered experts in this field could probably learn something from the book. With each aspect of forensic science separated into different chapters it's easy to just pick a chapter you like the look of rather than read the book in the traditional cover to cover fashion. With illustrations, anecdotes and a plethora of brilliant research this was a very enjoyable book and one I have no trouble recommending.

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