Sunday, 26 January 2014

Dexter Eat Your Heart Out



A couple of weeks ago I had the great fortune to be pointed in the direction of a free online Introduction to Forensics course at Strathclyde University (many thanks to Chris Longmuir). Without hesitation I enrolled and proceeded to develop a thin veneer of forensics knowledge, having noticed my deficit when recently starting to write a murder mystery.

If someone in your street today tried to commit the perfect murder they would surely fail. In the old days only Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Columbo and Miss Marple had the honed detective intellect to deduce motive, method, perpetrator, weapon and time of event from the few scant clues. Nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of modern entertainment media, we are all experts. True crime documentaries, CSI, Criminal Minds, Dexter, Sherlock and other TV programmes contribute to the societal knowledge of methods of murder, criminal profiling and forensics.

We congratulate ourselves on having already identified the killer before the on-screen characters manage to do so. A dodgy-looking individual lurks in their van near the schoolyard, looking at the kids. Kidnapper. A man smoothes his greasy hair, smiling as he ascends the stairs from the cellar, boning knife in hand. Serial killer. A woman smiles encouragement at her distraught injured child but drops the expression when she looks at the camera. Psychopath. The question for the consumer of these delights is often not who did what, where and when and how, but rather the why. We know who did it because we’ve been presented with enough evidence to convict an elephant. What we want to know is why they did what they did.

Red herrings are thrown into the fray for viewers to feast upon. The dodgy-looking individual is there to pick up his kid and just happens to look dodgy by nature. The greasy-haired man has been preparing some legitimate meat in his downstairs kitchen. The woman who drops her smile of encouragement is simply tired by motherhood.

Screenplays have the luxury of being able to visually present those fake and bona fide clues to viewers through the actors’ body language, appearance, actions and words. For a fiction writer things are more subtle. A one second piece of throwaway behaviour on-screen becomes a string of words when written. The reader can sit and stare at that sentence for as long as they like – it’s not time-bound.

It could be argued that all good fiction contains components of suspense – what, who, where, when, how, why. The reader turns the page to find out the answer to one or more of these questions. Even the most literary fiction is a study of the human condition and begs questions about the why.

I recently watched a TV series called Crocodile Tears, describing several instances where parents had appeared in the media, pleading for their children or their children’s killers to be found, when they had themselves committed the crime. Each case described what had happened, when and where, and concluded with the who – which we knew already as it was Crocodile Tears. The series of programmes was ultimately unsatisfying because it didn’t deliver on how the crimes were perpetrated and why the parents did it. That is often the case with true crime, whether visual or written. As a fiction writer the challenge is to maintain the suspense of withholding at least one of the answers but to eventually deliver on all or most of them.

So, back to my murder mystery WIP and the ongoing Introduction to Forensics course at Strathclyde Uni. Principles and practice of crime scene investigation, fingerprints, DNA (including blood spatter analysis à la Dexter and worst part of the week – “we will now look at semen”), footwear & toolmarks, firearms, drugs, silent witness, all wrapped up in a real life case study. All good technical stuff. Being the possessor of a mind palace I will store all this great info away and try to apply it in my writing without getting my DNA in a twist and making the reader choke on the post mortem.

What I have learned from Strathclyde so far are two very important lessons.

Firstly, almost everyone (as witnessed in the virtual chat rooms of the course, myself included) leapt straight into detective mode at the outset, trying to solve the case rather than observe the facts.

Secondly, the what-where-when-how-who-why conundrum is the key to successful plotting of a mystery, to the plotting of almost any fiction. At 25% in, my WIP had already answered all these crime scene questions for the reader and I was floundering. Now I know why.

9 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

Great post, Ruby. Pleased you're enjoying the course. Did you know there's another one, also free, it's Forensic Science and Criminal Justice and starts on 31 March, different university. Also, if there are any budding writers reading this, there's one on Start Writing Fiction on 28 April. This one is run by the Open University and is also free. These MOOCS courses from FutureLearn are a a great idea. There's loads on all kinds of different topics.

@Ruby_Barnes said...

Thanks, Chris. I just signed up for that Forensic Science and Criminal Justice. Three weeks in with the Strathclyde course and it's really helping a lot with my murder mystery WIP.

Bill Kirton said...

I'm a fellow student, too, Ruby (again, thanks to Chris) and I was guilty of the jump to conclusions mode at the outset. It's a thought-provoking course, isn't it, and it does show how difficult it is to remain an observer when you're desperate to find out whodunnit. I'm with you, too, on the importance of the far more interesting question whydunnit. That's been my stance in all my own crime novels so far. The murky depths of people's minds (but also their helpless confusions) are far more interesting than the application of a garotte or the direction of blood splashes.

Lydia Bennet said...

I'm doing the course too! Chris, they should be paying you for marketing! Very enjoyable and interesting. I remember seeing a press conference with a guy begging for info about who burnt down his house with his young children inside - turned out to be him, perhaps to get rehoused in a better house which is the commonest reason people set their own houses on fire. Chilling how well he acted it, an uneducated man with no media experience. However 'why' can be dangerous too in theorising ahead of data - motive often in fictional crime seems to be considered as evidence, which it's not,
and I would hope it isn't by real law enforcers...

Susan Price said...

Here's another forensics student you recruited, Chris! Very much enjoying it. Starting off thinking, well, obviously Ward killed his wife - but 3pm on an August afternoon near Loch Lomond? - Did he have powers of invisibility?
Anyway, after fingerprint evidence - and the fact that Duggan gave a false address - started to think: drug deal gone wrong?
Now, with the blood spatter evidence, starting to think he done it after all.

Debbie Bennett said...

I did a few Saturdays at the local college lifting fingerprints and analysing blood spatters. Also examining hairs under microscopes! Fascinating stuff.

julia jones said...

Thanks for all this - partly wish I was doing it too but mainly looking forward to reading the results.

Reb MacRath said...

Great post. Is the course available to Yanks?

@Ruby_Barnes said...

Yeah, it's a great course and you can go into as much depth as you like with the supporting material Week 3 test on DNA was a bit tricky but I managed ok.
Reb, it's open internationally.