Silent Witnesses

“Innovations and advances are continually being made in this field. It is this incredible variety of approaches that makes the history of forensic science such a fascinating subject. For each forensic technique, from ballistic analysis to old-fashioned fingerprinting, there are cases that highlight the real practical value of new developments.” – Nigel McCrery

I never thought that I would be one to admit that forensic science could be so fascinating, but Nigel McCrery has written a fascinating history of everything from ballistics to hair analysis with strong real-life examples that convey just how far science has come in helping to solve crimes. Silent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome but Always Fascinating History of Forensic Science is an intriguing collection of criminal history, scientific exploration, and compelling mysteries.  For a long time, I was under the impression that CSI-style forensics were recent inventions, yet McCrery uses historical examples to show how forensic science has evolved over time.  Not only has science led to apprehending the “bad guys” in countless cases, but it has also proven the innocence of numerous accused individuals.

While forensics have become a common subject for contemporary crime dramas, Silent Witnesses shows how this fascinating subject has played a role in solving crimes for centuries. As an early criminology author, Paul L. Kirk wrote “Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches” (as quoted by McCrery). Indeed, exploring crime scenes has never been so educational and interesting.

 Book Club Questions:

1. McCrery makes the case that crime scenes have long captured the public’s attention.  Why do you believe that is the case?

2. Who does McCrery suggest benefits more from advances in forensic science, investigators or criminals?

3. When discussing an early twentieth century case, McCrery noted: “Despite continued success, it was often still difficult to convince a confused and not necessarily well-verse public (and crucially, therefore, juries) of the worth of forensic evidence. Such evidence might add weight to a case to a case, but without a confession, it was rarely enough to secure a conviction.” Do you believe that the same holds true for contemporary cases, or is forensic evidence more valuable than a confession?


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