Hazel McHaffie

Truth, fact and fiction

Sometimes fiction allows one to tell a truth that couldn’t be so readily conveyed factually because of all the complexities of real life: so said best-selling crime writer, Val McDermid, at a Blackwell’s Bookshop event on Thursday evening last week. How true.

Blackwell's eventShe was appearing with her great friend Professor Sue Black, a renowned forensic anthropologist. I’ve heard them doing a double act before at the Edinburgh International Book Festival so I knew we were in for a real treat.

The flip side of the first aphorism is: fact can sometimes be so much stranger than fiction that a novelist can’t use it because no one would believe it. How far would your credulity stretch, I wonder? Would you believe that a pile of pupae on a kitchen table in Liverpool could be found to have cocaine in its DNA, which in turn would lead to the discovery of the murder of a drug dealer no one knew had been killed? It really happened! Were you aware that only certain species of insects can lay eggs through the zip of a suitcase? Val has met the scientists who’ve investigated this phenomenon in person and seen the actual suitcases they utilised. Did you know that the ink used in tattoos migrates to the lymph nodes, so that if a corpse has had the limbs severed, the lymph nodes in each quadrant can indicate where and what colour their tattoos were? Or if indeed they were added after death. Fascinating true facts.

The evening was full of such wisdom and knowledge. All delivered with great verve and wit. Both women are excellent orators with a lively sense of humour, and a tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge. They also have massive respect for each other and for their readers’ discernment, illustrating perfectly the enormous value for a writer in working alongside experts. Their own relationship goes back twenty years and one can readily understand that in their time they’ve emptied more than one hotel foyer and coffee shop with their ghoulish conversation and macabre sense of the ridiculous! Even at this event, in full view of a large audience, they chortled gleefully about subjects not normally broadcast before the watershed! But hey, did you know that a pubic scalp looks like a tuna steak with hair? (Val said it took her a good year before she could face a tuna steak after Sue shared this fact with her.) Or that PhDs are gained on the study of the backs of men’s hands and the configurations of the male genitalia in various stages of arousal? Such essential statistics are vital for forensic scientists tracking down paedophiles and murderers apparently; and equally valuable to a crime writer weaving an authentic and challenging plot.

Sue and Val in conversationPerhaps the clearest message that came across though, was that the best scientists are the ones who can make their subject readily understandable to other people. Sue Black does exactly that. And if anyone could sell a book on forensics, it’s these two. When Val was recently approached by the Wellcome Trust to write a non-fiction book on the history of crime for their forthcoming exhibition, she initially declined. All she did was ‘make it all up’, she protested. But of course, in truth she’s a mine of information, and has an impressive contact list of experts to boot. With the inquiring mind of a journalist, and the lateral and devious thinking of a crime writer, she tracked the changes in techniques and detection over the years and produced Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, which was published last month. In her lively description she allowed us to share her fascination with the topic that grabbed her interest most: scavenging bugs and beetles, flies and maggots, and what they can teach about a crime.

All in all a most entertaining evening that reinforced for me the importance of meticulous research and true engagement with one’s readers/listeners.

(Footnote for those who are anxious about my current health problems: I was closely guarded by my son and daughter from door to door. I’m happy to report that in spite of the excitement and laughter my heart rose nobly to the occasion and I lived to write this report.)

 

 

 

 

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