There hardly seems a need to define the acronym these days; crime scene investigation—the subject of pop culture since at least Sherlock Holmes—generates massive public interest, lines the pocket books of TV executives, and has launched a generation for whom DNA analysis is par for the course. As Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton, authors of Murder and the Making of English CSI, write on the very first page, most people already have a good idea about “what a crime scene looks like, what takes place within it, and why,” without ever having set eyes on one (1). But that very familiarity leads to a mistaken sense of the known; we may have seen plenty of television—but do we actually understand the frenetic activity, methodical and meticulous technique, and varied and vital workers that make up CSI as we know it? DNA isn’t magic; it degrades, slips away, is easily contaminated, hard to read, and in need of interpretation. Investigators are not wizards; they patiently work over the minutiae of sometimes patently disturbing scenes of death and decay. Decried by crime scene workers and forensics specialists alike, the “CSI effect,” or the way fictional presentation has led the public to believe mysteries are easily solved in fifty minutes or less, elevates CSI to a dramatized mystique, while simultaneously hiding its more astonishing history. Burney and Pemberton open a window into this incredible world and all its messy, intense, and fraught exuberance. The introduction sets up the work’s pedigree, and offers a clarification of scope—that the focus will not be on the crimes themselves, but upon changing forensic cultures and practices. The academic prose gives way, after this initial contextualizing, to a fluid narrative that considers the origins of CSI with Hans Gross’s 1906 Criminal Investigation: a Practical Handbook, and also with Edmond Locard, a French police scientist and expert on “trace” evidence. Anyone familiar with either figure (or with Ian Burney’s previous publications) will readily recognize the value of “dust,” the detritus of living—and dying—that, with meticulous handling, can reconstruct a crime scene for careful investigators. Most interesting in the early chapters of Burney and Pemberton’s book is the interplay between observer and observed. The trouble with CSI isn’t that a crime is difficult to imagine, but that it is far too easy; preconceived notions and the vulnerability of a crime scene work together to confuse forensic scientists and, on occasion, obliterate evidence. Despite the injunction not to fictionalize a crime scene, the authors note the role fiction (particularly detective fiction) plays in shaping CSI. Not only did early investigators like Locard admire and refer to figures like Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictive Sherlock Holmes, but the media-savvy pathologist, Bernard Spillsbury, in England seemingly brought the fictional detective to life. Chapters three, four, and five focus on the “Crumbles” murder of 1924, but true to their focus, Burney and Pemberton spend this real estate describing the manner in which Spillsbury’s performance, and its media treatment, launched a “celebrity” detective career—and in the process, changed the meaning and expectations of CSI for the public. Critically, Spillsbury’s involvement in the violent murder of Emily Kaye, a young pregnant woman, by Patrick Mahon, shifted the balance from pathology to crime scene analysis. By tracing the manner in which a blood stain, the testable pathological fluid, became contextualized by the scene in which it was found. Spillsbury, in other words, began trace-hunting—and because Spillsbury, a rising star and media darling, had made a crucial transition from looking for clues on the body to looking for clues in the crime scene, the fate of every investigator to follow him was undeniably set. Chapters six and seven continue to query the relationship between pathology and CSI, at the intersections but also at the divisions. In the latter half of the book, Burney and Pemberton explicate two crime scenes: the same vulnerable and ever changing scene described at the introduction, and also the microcosm of shifting evidence living on and in the body itself. Though by the Second World War, CSI had found a firm foundation, and Grossian and Locardian “dust” had solidified into working protocols for training investigators; forensics of the body remained a critical part of solving any crime. Covering the campaign for a National Medico-Legal institute that remained unrealized and unbuilt, the book lays out the means by which forensic pathologists became incorporated into the wider scope of the scenes of crime. Examining a series of high profile cases, from John Haigh’s acid bath murders of 1949 to the murder house at Rillington Place in London, 1953, Burney and Pemberton explore how we arrived at the (admittedly varied) conceptions about CSI we have today. They spend the epilogue usefully engaged in current debates, not only about the post-DNA landscape but also about attempts to recapture what some consider a more holistic past. Do not look for answers, they suggest, but for places to question and reflect. If we find the narrative inconclusive, we should recognize that our drive for answers is motivated, no doubt, by our very familiarity with the process of investigation—and colored, perhaps, by modern fictions that suggest CSI and forensics are made of open and shut cases. Deeply entertaining and thoroughly well-researched, Murder and the Making of CSI provides an excellent introduction to the making of a profession. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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