Hazel McHaffie

Professor Sue Black

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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A festival of good things

Well, our beautiful city has vanished under a welter of posters and stalls and people on stilts and tourists and tents and coffee booths and … well, pretty much anything you can think of. Even a loo for the exclusive use of authors!

Me, I’m lurking with intent amidst the marquees in Charlotte Square, (where the International Book Festival is held every year) and in the true spirit of the Olympics, wearing my ‘medals’ with pride!!Festival passesI have open access to the Press Pod but am rather intimidated by the real journalists who swagger in, laden with cameras sporting enormous lenses, who know everything there is to know about wifi, and type at breakneck speed. I periodically stroll in and out in a nonchalant way, as if this is all run-of-the-mill stuff for me, and that I’m preoccupied with the wording of my next scintillating copy, but then scuttle home to type up my blog on my own computer in the privacy of my own office where no one can see my cack-handed way of negotiating a keyboard. I mean, at least look the part!

Star experience-of-the-week for me goes to a personal first. My novels – MINE! – have featured in the 3for2 sections in Blackwell’s. How grown up is that? I’ve often wandered around these central aisles wondering what authors or their publishers did to get these coveted slots. Now here I am! Cool or what?Blackwells windowAs to the events I’ve attended, well, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a Festival event as on Tuesday afternoon when I listened to ‘tartan noir’ crime writer, Val McDermid, and the Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, Professor Sue Black, who has a wealth of experience in the identification of bodies in places like war-torn Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in Thailand after the tsunami. They are obviously great friends and sparring partners, and we had a fantastically entertaining as well as instructive hour.

Forensic science may be a regular part of our popular culture, thanks to novels, television and films, but developments in the world of pathology, and understanding of DNA, and related technology, proceed apace. Weaving today’s possibilities into a novel can make it out of date tomorrow. Even the criminals catch up and learn how to avoid incriminating behaviours. So how do authors keep up?

Sue Black may be a top-of-her-tree professor but she has a remarkable facility for reducing complex science to understandable and graphic images and language. We learned so many astonishing facts. Did you know that an embalmed pubic scalp looks like ‘tinned tuna with hairs on it’? Or that a body retrieved from a bog after 200 years resembles a ‘leather bag with a face on it‘? Or that the back of one’s hand is as unique as a fingerprint? Or that it is possible to tell from bones and teeth where in the world your mother was when she was pregnant with you? Or that when someone gets a tattoo, some of the dye is deposited in the lymph nodes, so that even if the limb is cut off, it’s possible to say unequivocally, this person had a tattoo which was X, Y and Z colours? Well, you do now!

I was impressed too by the lengths McDermid goes to to authenticate her stories. She sees it as something she ‘owes to the dead‘ – an unexpected and moving notion from such a flamboyant character. But recently she’s been given an opportunity to give something back for all the help the forensic scientists have given to crime writers. Dundee University needs a new state-of-the-art morgue, where bodies can be embalmed using modern techniques to keep them flexible. The professor was promised a £million if she could raise a second million. She turned to her crime-writing friend for help. McDermid’s approach is robust: we shall almost all require surgery at some stage in our lives; we want the surgeon to be as nifty with the knife as possible; let’s give him excellent corpses to learn on, not something that ‘resembles a three-day-old turkey’. Together they are campaigning to raise that sum – details at http://www.millionforamorgue.com/. For £1 you can vote for the new institution to be named after your favourite crime writer (anyone but Lee Child ‘because you can’t have a Child’s Morgue’!).

Another star turn was Professor Michael Sandel on Monday. He’s been described as a ‘rockstar morallist’, and he is hugely charismatic with a most engaging style of drawing the audience in to discussion as he explores difficult ethical and philosophical issues, forcing them to confront their own assumptions, biases, and lazy thinking. This week it was: What is the proper role of markets, where are the boundaries, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that money cannot buy? Based on his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy.

He brought the subject to life within seconds with his accessible tales of cash incentives to drug-addict mothers, inducements of room-upgrades to prisoners, advertisements for Viagra. Clear, immediate and humane. He outlined actual examples of financial incentives being used: to overweight people to get them to diet and eat healthily; to a Swiss mountain village to encourage them to accept the dumping of nuclear waste close by; to homeless people to get them to queue and boost sales of different commodities; to children to encourage them to get good grades or read books or write letters of thanks.

And through the entertainment of these exercises, Sandel teased out important philosophical issues, demonstrating that money can change the value of the goods being exchanged – for example, the concept of gratitude behind a letter of thanks; or a kidney donated by a poor peasant in India to a wealthy American businessman; or a prostitute fuelling her drug addiction. Cash incentives can crowd out higher motivations like civic duty, family welfare. Society, he concluded, must ask how important these core intrinsic values are, and then decide where market incentives fit in.

Sorry, this is an extra long blog this week – and I could go on about all the other amazing events I’ve attended, but enough’s enough. I’m having a ball, keeping up to date with the official blogging, (Genotype), and amazingly it’s been dry almost all the time – a rarity for this Festival! What more could a body ask for?

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