Hazel McHaffie

Wellcome Trust

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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Art and ethics

Art and ethics – two topics close to my heart. Not surprising then that I’m at a special symposium on these issues this afternoon. But more than that, I’ve been invited to showcase my own work and say a bit about how I came to move from academia to novel-writing. A great opportunity to bring my books to a completely different kind of attention.

Wellcome Trust funded this event and Sparkle and Dark Theatre Company have worked with the Mason Institute of Medicine, Life Sciences and the Law, to bring folks together with an interest in developing links between the different communities – moral philosophers, doctors, lawyers, social scientists, filmmakers, actors, artists, novelists etc etc – a brilliant mix. The puppet Roger from Killing Roger is also in attendance, a star attraction.Puppet Roger

The venue is full and the audience are totally attentive and responsive during the first hour of short presentations; the ensuing discussion is lively and wide-ranging. For my part I’m hugely impressed by the depth of engagement with the real issues everyone displays, especially the actors who speak with such passion about their involvement in this area. How truly heartening to be with so many people who understand and support what I’ve been trying to do for the last twenty years – let art illuminate science. Yeeeees! I feel as if I’ve made a whole new circle of friends! And I’m positively buzzing.

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Strength in collaboration

Well, our lovely city has turned into bedlam once more as the festivals get into full swing. Stalls, tourists, artistes, craziness, noise, performances, wherever you turn.Festival cityBut I’m conscious that I view the events differently now that I write fiction. Which reminds me … writing a guest blog this week for Sparkle and Dark Theatre Company I was quite shocked to realise that I’ve been a novelist for almost twenty years now. Of course, for over half that time I was also working full time at the University as a researcher, but still … twenty years! Hard to believe.

A lot’s happened in those decades. Not least an increase in the number of people working to illuminate science through the arts, compared with when I first saw a niche for myself in this role. So I was delighted to be invited to participate in a couple of events designed to bring together artists and scientists. This collaboration has been inspired by Sparkle and Dark’s new play, ‘Killing Roger‘, which raises contemporary bioethical issues, and is being performed during the Festival Fringe (and yes, of course I’ll be there –  next Monday actually. With bells on!). Sparkle and Dark have got together with The Mason Institute at Edinburgh University, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, to host these additional events. Hats off to them.

The first is a debate on assisted dying, the subject of ‘Killing Roger’. Ahah! Ears pricked. As you know, one of my novels is about this very issue, and I’ve maintained a keen interest in developments since. A panel of experts will lead the discussion and there should be lively exchanges, probably a smidgeon of dispute too. I have my own solution to the current legal impasse – question is: will I have the courage and opportunity to present it?

The second event is a symposium to discuss the place of the arts within policy and practice, and how to enhance collaboration between artists and scientists. I’m being wheeled out as a scientist-turned-artist, I think, someone who combines and embodies both. We shall see. There’s a wine reception afterwards so I’ll be able to fortify myself if anyone heckles my credentials!

But the main objective of both events is to establish a network of interested parties in this area of arts and biomedical ethics which is absolutely my bag. As Henry Ford once said: Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

So what with this, and various relevant performances in the assorted festivals to attend, and of course, THE Book Festival – here’s the famous tented village well under construction this week …BookfestfBook Festival venue under construction… August is promising to be a terrifically exciting month. Edinburgh is certainly the place to be.

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