Serial Killers review

Flu at this time of year is a pain, but I’ve made good use of some of the enforced sofa-time by catching up on a few recorded tv programmes, including ‘Serial Killers: The Women Who Write Crime Fiction’.

Part of the long-running ‘Imagine’ strand of cultural programming on BBC, this examined the current popularity of reading and particularly writing crime amongst women.  I say ‘current’, but as the programme itself made clear, many of the best known crime writers of the last hundred years have been women, so this is really nothing new.

The content of the programme was fascinating.  There was lots of detail about forensic science, from the amazing scale models of crime scenes made in the 19th century as teaching aids for detectives right through to modern, state of the art forensic laboratories and new ways of preserving evidence and bodies.  There were also lots of interviews with scientists, criminologists and, of course, the (mostly) female crime writers themselves, including Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid, Martina Cole, and even (via archive footage) P D James and Ruth Rendell.  All were well spoken, and all shed considerable light on their own particular reasons and methods for writing about crime.

Where ‘Serial Killers’ fell down was in its direction, or lack of it.  It didn’t seem to have a clear-cut message, but wandered from one writer to another, one anecdote to another.  The only underlying question it set itself was why women are so interested in crime fiction, and that’s where I really started to have problems.  Because my own immediate response is, why shouldn’t they be interested?  Is there something about crime that should only appeal to men?  Should women be sensitive, easily shocked little flowers better entertained by recipes and the latest lipstick colours?  Surely the real question is why anyone enjoys crime fiction.  The answer to that, I firmly believe, has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with an interest in the human psyche, a fascination with characters who by definition have removed themselves from the norms of human society, and a love of solving puzzles.

In the hands of the rather old-fashioned male presenter Alan Yentob, the whole thing felt uneasily patronising.  The writers who took part weren’t quite asked ‘what’s a nice girl like you doing writing stuff like this?’ but at times it came painfully close.  The approach missed a wonderful opportunity to examine the real, deep-seated reasons people like crime fiction.  It also short-changed the many excellent male crime writers out there, and reinforced old stereotypes by implying that there’s a difference between male and female writers.  The beauty of crime fiction is that it’s one of the few genres that has mass appeal, that sucks in every gender, race, colour and creed in a shared love of mystery, thrill and detection.  What a shame the programme did so little to celebrate, or even mention, that.

CSI: Southampton

First off, what a wonderful title for a book event.  The minute I saw it I thought, I’ve got to go to that!   It’s a marathon journey from the Far North of England all the way to the south coast, but luckily we have family in the area, and after all the effort I’m delighted to say the event didn’t disappoint.

The day featured a number of talks by crime authors, but also by some of the experts who have daily experience of the very things we’re writing about.  The morning’s panel featured two crime writers – the event’s main organiser Pauline Rowson and Natasha Cooper – plus two experts from Hampshire Constabulary.  One was high up in the CSI/forensics department; the other ran the fingerprint bureau.  It was fascinating to hear their somewhat different ‘take’ on the subject, in terms of what really happens procedurally, but also how attitudes to forensics have changed thanks to popular tv shows, and even the sheer unglamorous reality of clearing up after an unpleasant crime.

Throw in an entertaining talk by well-known crime author Peter Lovesey, and a chance to have a thumbprint ‘taken’ and turned into a unique keyring, and you have all the ingredients of a successful and very enjoyable day.

Sadly I had to dash off before the last session (featuring authors Susan Wilkins and Jessie Keane) due to the long journey back north.  But I hear Pauline Rowson is organising a similar event in Portsmouth next March, with the possibility of others around the country after that, so I’ll hope to get to at least one of those.

Forensics with a difference

Most of us in the crime fraternity (that’s writers, by the way, in case you were wondering) are familiar with the use of forensics to solve crimes.  Murder, rape, even burglary – all can now be helped along by a range of techniques that were barely even known 20 years ago.

But it’s not just human crimes that benefit.  Thanks to a fascinating programme on the BBC the last few weeks, we’ve also found that it applies to the world of art forgery.  ‘Fake or Fortune’, presented by newsreader Fiona Bruce and art expert Philip Mould, takes a disputed painting each week and tries to prove whether it’s an original worth squillions, or a clever fake.

The results are sometimes surprising but always intriguing.  And they don’t always have a happy outcome – only last week a man desperate to pay off his father’s death duties so he could keep the family farm going was devastated to be told that there was no proof his picture of a fountain in the south of France was by Winston Churchill.

On the other hand, the elders of a church in rural Lancashire discovered that their dark, dingy and bat-poo-speckled scene of the Pieta (the dead Christ being taken down from the cross) was a 16th Century Italian ‘old master’, painted by Venetian artist Francesco Montemezzano (don’t worry, I’d never heard of him either) and worth a cool £100,000.

Of course, some of the investigation is based around traditional methods – paper trails, provenance, proof that a particular artist sold their work to the particular gallery where the owner bought it.  But on top of that, there is now a huge amount that can be added with the use of various kinds of forensics.  X-rays, to see if the work has been altered in any way, or painted over an earlier image.  Examination of the brush strokes.  Detailed testing of the pigments used, to show up any rogue elements such as modern chemicals that wouldn’t have been available at the time.  Ditto the composition of the paper or board the scene is painted on.  High-definition photography of the backing material to show up any writing, labels or codes that might have faded away.  Every last detail can now be inspected, checked and tested, so that when an expert announces that the painting is genuine, he’s basing that opinion on a wealth of scientific evidence rather than just his own personal opinion.

It makes for a clever detective story, and a mesmerising hour of television.

Forensic fallibility

For the last twenty years or so we’ve gradually come to depend more and more on forensics to solve crime, with some films, books and tv series (cough CSI cough) making it look even more reliable than it perhaps actually is.  However, this recent article in The New Scientist is a real eye-opener.

Written by one of the experts in the infamous Amanda Knox case, it particularly highlights the problems when dealing with infinitesimally small traces of DNA (as was apparently the case with one of the mainstays of the prosecution case, the supposed murder weapon).  Here DNA expert Greg Hampikan reveals that the ‘miniscule’ trace of Knox’s DNA on the knife would not have been enough to count as evidence in many courts around the world – and that the Italian authorities never managed to replicate their initial results.

In spite of this (and a number of other odd quirks of evidence, or the lack of it) Knox was convicted of murder, then freed on appeal, then re-convicted, then finally cleared by the supreme court in Italy.  But overall, the case illustrates that the sort of glossy forensic certainties favoured by CSI and similar shows is a very long way from reality.