Forensic Mysteries

Volume 31, No. 4, Winter 2015-16

Forensic Mysteries

Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.



  • Forensic Fact meets Forensic Fiction by Lin Anderson
  • Forensics… More Than CSI by Lori Andrews
  • Flawed Forensics but Hopeful Outcomes by Noreen Ayres
  • A Visit to the Morgue by Anne Louise Bannon
  • Proofreading the Blood Stains by Lisa Black
  • Putting the Forensic in Art by Robin Burcell
  • Blind to the Here and Now by Colin Cotterill
  • Merging Interests by Kristin Durfee
  • Forensics for a Lifetime by Kathryn Fox
  • Gazing Into the Faces of the Past by Erin Hart
  • A Short History of the Role of Coroner by Nancy Herriman
  • Victorian Forensics and Opossums by Maureen Jennings
  • Nightlights, Stalkers, & Me: Forensics Served with a Twist by Sarah Lovett
  • From Handwriting to Mystery Writing by Sheila Lowe
  • The Questions I Get by D.P. Lyle
  • Reliance on Science by Priscilla Masters
  • Backwards Forensic Profiling is the Key to My Writing by J.A. Menzies
  • Forensics and Archaeology by Beverly Heth Connor
  • Seeking the Hidden Homicide by Alec Peche
  • Learning More About Forensics Online by Marsali Taylor
  • The Fascination of Forensics by Elaine Viets
  • A Sunday at the Morgue — March 1985 by E.J. Wagner
  • Feeding Reader Autopsy Addiction by Robert W. Walker
  • Birth of a Reluctant Coroner by Mark Zuehlke


  • Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by L.J. Roberts and Sandie Herron
  • Children’s Hour: Forensic Detectives by Gay Toltl Kinman
  • The Real Forensic Detectives by Cathy Pickens
  • Crime Seen: The CSI Effect by Kate Derie
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet Rudolph

Putting the Forensic in Art
by Robin Burcell

Blame “CSI,” the television show (and all its incarnations) with whetting the public’s appetite for anything forensic. Before the show hit the airwaves, the term “forensic” was usually reserved for scholarly articles and expert court testimony in criminal cases. But if you were to ask someone today what the term meant, they’d likely say it had to do with bones, dead bodies, and definitely homicide cases.

The word “forensic” comes from the Latin word forensis, meaning open forum or public. The dictionary defines “forensic” as “an argumentative exercise.” No mention of death or bones. In fact, there are a lot of titles out there with the word “forensic” attached to it that have nothing to do with death investigations: forensic accountant, forensic computer analyst, forensic nursing, even forensic art (my specialty) to name a few. I suppose if one had to define it further, it means these individuals can testify in court about their field of expertise. Even better, they can testify as an expert.

What’s the advantage to that? If these professionals are certified as an expert for court testimony, they can give their opinion. Everyone else has to stick to the facts. Case in point: I was certified as an expert in forensic art during a rape case. Why? Because the sketch I had done from a witness’s description so closely resembled the suspect, the district attorney wanted my opinion, which was that the subject they arrested was the same suspect described by my witness, therefore the same subject who committed the rape. No one else could state that but me.

While most of my artwork was as a normal “sketch artist” from witness description (be it homicide or simple robbery), sometimes I had to tap into the “forensic” side of things — or rather what many would consider that a forensic artist would be used for: dead body identification. One particularly memorable case from another agency involved a young woman shot in the forehead, stabbed about fifteen times in the chest, then thrown into the delta waters in the remote part of the county. By the time she’d been pulled out, she’d lost most of her hair and all her fingerprints. All that was left that might be used for identification was the clothes and jewelry she was wearing and a tattoo of a butterfly on her shoulder.

I was called in and asked to do a sketch of the woman in hopes of gaining an ID that way. I went out to the morgue and discovered that there were very few strands of hair left. Two or three short ones in the front that led me to believe she wore bangs, a few medium length hairs on the side and a couple of slightly longer strands in the back, possibly indicative of a layered hairstyle. I did a sketch of the woman, recreating what I thought her hairstyle was, and the drawing was published in the newspaper. Nothing happened. No one recognized her. Or if they knew her, they weren’t coming forward. Two years later, the sheriff’s office decided to run my sketch on one of those television shows that feature true crime, asking for tips. A woman called in, stating the sketch looked like her granddaughter, who’d been missing for two years.

Perhaps because of the length of time it took for an identification to be made, that case stuck with me. I used elements of that homicide (as well as my sketch) in Face of a Killer (2008), the first novel in the Sydney Fitzpatrick FBI forensic artist series. In the real life version, because this woman was able to identify her granddaughter, the sheriff’s office was able to solve the case and bring the young woman’s murderer to justice.

Robin Burcell is an FBI-trained forensic artist who has worked in law enforcement for over two decades as a police officer, detective, and hostage negotiator. Her latest work is The Last Good Place, updating the series that was the basis for TV’s “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Blind to the Here and Now
by Colin Cotterill

I can empathize with Umberto Eco. I can’t write like him but I share his frustration. I can see him in his dusty studio bemoaning the dearth of DNA testing available to Monk William in the 16th century. Admittedly, The Name of the Rose would have been a much shorter book if the Italian branch of “CSI” had been let loose on the monastery. But think how cool William would have looked if he’d whipped out his semen-detecting laser wand and shown just what those “celibate” monks got up to after dark. Umberto and I carry the burden of setting our books in an age before the scientist took over from the detective. Our investigators still traipse through crime scenes in their muddy sandals trampling clues underfoot and contaminating corpses with their sneezing and shedding.

My Dr. Siri series begins in the mid-1970s in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. It was a time when handcuffs were considered an innovation in crime fighting. Fingerprints would only incriminate a suspect if he’d been helpful enough to dip his hands in wet paint before committing the crime. It’s not that forensic investigation didn’t exist, rather that it hadn’t yet made it to Indochina, which was too busy waging war to keep up with the journals. When thirty-odd years of fighting finally came to an end in ’75, there was the matter of rebuilding lives to consider. There was the chaos of starting over, of education and reeducation. There were very few books and none of them were in Lao. French was the language of academia and only those with a coveted French education would have access to them. And most of the French-trained elite had fled. Even today the Lao have very little to read in their own language and no inclination to do so.

My protagonist, Dr. Siri Paiboun, had the rare combination of a French medical education in Paris and membership of the communist party. Despite the fact that he was obliged to hide his French texts from the paranoid socialists, who couldn’t read them, he was one of those rare characters who had access to the world of knowledge, albeit historical. Amongst the dusty tomes he discovered a textbook for pathologists that dated back to the 1950s. Through it, he was able to obtain a grounding for the role of national coroner that had been thrust upon him. With the book open on a music stand beside him, Dr. Siri and his team were able to conduct autopsies by numbers. Fortunately, the patient was in no hurry to hear the prognosis. They could take their time because post-mortem examinations were rare in Laos. Until Siri arrived, there was no national coroner in the country. In fact, the Lao were petrified to handle dead bodies for fear that the fleeing soul would enter their own bodies.

So, Siri was taken care of but what about me, his creator? I could just about handle basic illustrated texts about Henri and Claire and their chien, Fifi, but certainly not a stuffy fifty-year-old physiology textbook. Where would I find anything similar in English? The answer was England, or rather, Wales, which is pretty much the same thing. Hay on Wye is a quaint Welsh village with more second-hand bookshops than Bangkok has 7-Elevens, more rejected books than Wales has sheep. In one warehouse of a shop I found an entire wall of discarded medical texts dating back to palm leaf manuscripts on bloodletting. And it was there I found Dr. Sydney Smith’s 1945 textbook, Forensic Medicine, with 179 illustrations. I could probably have done without the illustrations but the text was a boon for Dr. Siri.

You see? In order to write about a place and time long gone you have to be blind to the here and now. You have to turn off “Silent Witness” and “CSI” because you’ll be tempted to borrow technology that didn’t exist. You have to walk blinkered through the streets of Vientiane and not see the pizza restaurant because in 1975 it was a whitewashed colonial house with twelve families crammed into the rooms. You have to shut your ears to the traffic and hear a stream of bygone bicycle bells. And to be sure somebody’s dead, you don’t turn on your cell phone’s LOL (likelihood of life) app. You jab a knitting needle with a flag on the end through the ribcage and into the heart. If the flag waves your body’s not dead yet. Ah, those were the days.

Colin Cotterill was born in England and now lives on the Gulf of Thailand with his wife and dogs. He’s currently writing the eleventh Dr. Siri mystery, to be set partly at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Gazing Into the Faces of the Past
by Erin Hart

It was actually my mother who introduced me to forensic science—long before television shows like “CSI” ever hit the airwaves. My mom worked as a medical lab technician in the 1970s and 80s, and required continuing education for re-certification. Her two main loves were epidemiology and forensic science—she’d come home with tales from seminars on topics like salmonella outbreaks, mitochondrial DNA, and blood spatter, and cheerfully share her newfound knowledge with the family at the dinner table. Good thing none of us were squeamish!

When I started writing novels about Cormac Maguire and Nora Gavin, an archaeologist and pathologist who team up to solve recent murders and ancient mysteries, I knew I wanted to include history, archaeology, folklore, traditional music and song, as well as a certain level of forensic detail—I was fascinated by the work of Irish archaeologists and pathologists—real people I was lucky enough to meet and interview in the course of my research.

In each of my novels, there’s a person from a different time who turns up at least partially preserved in a bog. My characters, Cormac and Nora, are specialists in this area—wetlands archaeology, and specifically human remains from bogs. The most amazing thing about finding someone in a bog is that they’re almost miraculously preserved, or as Cormac Maguire observes in Haunted Ground:

Fewer than fifty such discoveries had ever been made in Irish bogs, and they offered an unparalleled opportunity to gaze directly into the past. Peat bogs not only preserved skin, hair, and vital organs, but even subtle facial expressions, and often revealed what a person who drew his dying breath twenty centuries ago had taken for his last meal on earth.

My first interview subject was Dr. Barry Raftery, head of the archaeology department at University College Dublin. He was about ten years old in the mid-1950s when his father (also an archaeologist, and head of the National Museum of Ireland), was called to a house in County Sligo where two brothers cutting turf in a bog had stumbled upon the perfectly preserved severed head of a beautiful red-haired girl. Though Dr. Raftery was only a child at the time, he remembered the girl’s head in detail, right down to her flaming red hair, the eyes “staring out at the world, it seemed in terror,” and the clean cut across the neck that said she’d been beheaded. No one knows what happened to that girl, but she was a real person, and she began to haunt my dreams. Who was she? What was she doing in the bog? Where was the rest of her? What could she possibly have done to be punished so brutally? My imagination couldn’t resist her story.

I took all of those indelible forensic details from Barry Raftery, and put the red-haired victim on a mortuary table in the present day. Bog bodies discovered these days undergo modern forensic examinations to determine cause of death—as it turns out, many bog people from 2,000 years ago were actually victims of ritual sacrifice, which became the theme for my second book, Lake of Sorrows.

I also got to interview Dr. Maire Delaney, Ireland’s foremost expert on bog remains, who happened to be a professor of anatomy at Trinity College Medical School, and a master’s student in archaeology. I’d already given Dr. Delaney’s job and keen interest in archaeology to my character Nora Gavin, and was fortunate to spend a couple of hours chatting with the real person my character was based upon. Dr. Delaney gave me all sorts of details about how a person might go about extricating human remains from a bog (digging in wet peat with bare hands), and in particular how to excavate a body that might not be intact.

As Ireland’s bog body expert, Dr. Delaney was involved in forensic exams, and was a font of information about real cases she had handled. (She also upended my plot twist relying on DNA evidence from a bog body, since—as she very kindly explained—being buried in a bog for 350 years wreaks havoc with nuclear DNA. I had to switch my evidence of maternal-child relationship to mitochondrial DNA, which experts tell me is far tougher stuff!)

In preparation for Lake of Sorrows, I got to spend a couple of days out on a dig at an industrial bog where peat is harvested by the ton for burning in power plants. My guides there were two archaeologists, Jane Whitaker and Ellen O’Carroll. Ellen had recently come across a 2,000-year-old pair of mummified legs, perhaps a victim of Iron Age human sacrifice, which had caused quite a stir in archaeological circles. (“Riddle of the legs in the bog,” Irish Times)

As it turns out, forensic examination and analysis can help us understand much more about ancient people than their cause of death. As I mentioned, sometimes their last meal is preserved, which tells about their diet and living conditions. Hair can be measured for isotopes that tell us where they lived, where they traveled, their drinking water and levels of protein in their diet. Pollen collected from creases in their skin can tell us about the environment in which they lived. One 2,000-year-old Irish bog man discovered in 2004 sported hair gel made from the sap of a tree that only grows in the Mediterranean. Forensic details like these prove scientifically fascinating, and offer excellent fodder for fiction as well.

My latest novel, The Book of Killowen, is based on the real discovery of a 9th-century book of Psalms in a bog. Seven years earlier, workmen had found a monk’s leather satchel a few yards away in the very same bog. As a crime writer, my first reaction to hearing about these two pieces of forensic evidence was: Where’s the guy who was carrying the book? Are we looking at a crime scene? Strangely, no body has turned up in that bog. Not yet, anyway.

Erin Hart writes archaeological mysteries set mostly in the shadowy boglands of Ireland. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, Irish button accordion legend Paddy O’Brien, and frequently travels to Ireland, carrying out essential research in bogs and cow pastures and castles and pubs.

Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.