I have always enjoyed crime fiction, especially the art of the twist, that one little detail that is revealed at the end that turns everything upside down and changes your understanding of everything that has gone before. Crime fiction piques our curiosity, and it can change how we think and how we observe the world. The details that Sherlock Holmes observes, those imperceptible ‘ordinary’ things that generally go unnoticed by other people, build an intricate interconnected picture that enables him to reconstruct events and work out what happened (however improbable).
There is a lot of talk about how crime fiction across the whole range of media from text to film has influenced us. We watch shows like CSI or Silent Witness and we become accustomed to seeing that sharp team of investigator scientists, with the shiny state of the art lab that’s equipped with the latest technology. We are alongside them as they find the evidence, identify the suspect and close the case – on TV it’s usually in just 40 minutes (give or take) and in a novel, as fast as we can read. What these kinds of TV shows and stories are brilliant at doing is bringing to life the latest technological breakthroughs (and sometimes tech that is nearly (but not quite) there yet). They are a powerful way of illustrating the value of science in the justice system, and of opening our minds to the possibilities that future developments in technology might have.
It is safe to say that crime fiction has always had an influence on the ‘real world’. For example, there is still significant debate about how much Conan Doyle (the author of Sherlock Holmes) was influenced by Hans Gross (the author of the first science text book on criminalistics) and vice versa, and Locard (often cited as the founding father of forensic science) is quoted as saying ‘Sherlock Holmes was the first to realise the importance of dust, I merely copied his methods’ (Wallace in ‘The Sunday Gentlemen’ 1965). The situation is similar today. The impact that fiction can have in the real world is a double-edged sword.
There are instances where the impact of fiction has led to new developments in cases that have led to breakthroughs. There was one case where I got a phone call from an investigator who had taken soil samples at a crime scene that they would not usually have taken, all because they saw a TV crime show where mud on a vehicle had cracked the case successfully. The analysis of those soil samples subsequently proved to be really important to building a case (in real life) (Morgan et al. 2006).
In contrast, there are also instances where the so-called ‘CSI effect’ has been seen, with senior judges observing a trend in juries placing more and more trust in forensic science evidence, to the exclusion of other types of evidence. His Honour Judge Wall QC recently told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that “Juries now think that a forensic scientist can get hold of a case, shake it about and do everything to discover who the culprit is. It has led to two things. It has led to juries constantly asking questions in a trial as to whether something has been submitted for testing, and if not, why not. It also leads (although this is more an impression than evidence based) to them having a great deal of confidence in the scientific evidence and, unless one is very careful when one is trying a case, putting more emphasis on its importance than it really has in any trial. It is a real difficulty…a lot of us did not realise quite how serious a difficulty this was for some time.” (see https://goo.gl/V51CAL).
So the impact of crime fiction on forensic science can have positive outcomes and yet it can also create new challenges. Perhaps the thing that crime fiction teaches us best, is that context is all important. Just as that one little (often overlooked) detail can be the foundation for the twist in the narrative that changes the meaning of all the ‘evidence’ we’ve seen being collected, in real life we need to be clear about the uncertainty that is inherent in science, and always be willing to accept that there may be parts of the puzzle that we don’t yet have.