Saturday, November 14, 2009


I freely admit I'm a total science nerd, and Sherlock Holmes should be near and dear to every Dust & Corruption reader. I'll be honest, I don't plan on covering much about Holmes here, mainly because there's tons of other sites that do it much better than I do. But we're Holmes-friendly here.

And forensic science is fun. Of course, there's the whole CSI phenomenon. But for me, it goes even further back. When I was a tender youth, in the late 70s and early 80s, I remember getting a plastic "Crime Lab" set one Christmas and immediately going mad taking fingerprints and bagging "evidence." Later I got a "Build-Your-Own Lie Detector" set that I loved, and I recall my high-school friends having fun with it at gatherings.

So looking at Victorian-era forensics is right up my alley. And author E. J. Wagner does a good job. This isn't in-depth; it's light pop science, but it's good light pop science.

Chapter by chapter, he examines different facets of criminal science in Victorian times, not only looking at their development but where they went in more modern times. Autopsies, superstitions, insects, toxicology, disguises, crime scene analysis, the Bertillon method, ballistics, goes on and on. She gives glimpses into the personalities of those involved, like Bertillon's arrogance, or Edmond Locard's dry sense of humor.

Oh...who was Bertillon? Alphonse Bertillon was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who established a system of measurements (finger length, width of head, etc.) that were recorded at the time of arrest and later used to identify criminals. He predated fingerprinting and when they were developed, he resisted adding them to his system...and as we're all aware, fingerprinting is now the most prevalent ID system used by the police. However, Bertillon established the standards for mug shots and crime scene photography, so he's not completely forgotten.

Edmond Locard was "the Sherlock Holmes of France," a pioneer in forensic science who established "Locard's exchange principle," or "every contact leaves a trace," and also founded the first police laboratory in Lyons. He died in 1966, with a huge career behind him.

Wagner peppers the book with all sorts of true crime stories from the past, such the story of Jessie M'Lachlan, a Scottish woman convicted by way of a footprint in Glasgow in 1862, or the Tulle poison-pen case, a 20's affair in which a French town was flooded with vicious, obscene letters accusing townspeople of various affairs and sexual transgressions; the perp turned out to be highly religious, leading Locard to comment, "There is nothing so dirty as the dreams of a saint." (The Tulle case served as inspiration for Henri-George Clouzot's 1943 film LE CORBEAU, which I may review someday.)

It's a fun, zesty read that goes along at a good pace. Not too gristly, to be sure, but good gruesome fun for your commute, or at bedtime.

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