Monday, March 28, 2011

Left Coast Crime - Forensics

After a very interesting weekend at Left Coast Crime, I'll try once again to provide highlights and recaps of the conference. My panel, Sex & Romance in Mysteries was one of the first sessions, and I was pleased that we had a good turnout. We talked about a lot of the topics I've already discussed here in various posts, so I'll move on to another panel. If anyone has questions about the Sex panel, leave them in the comments, and I'll be sure to answer.

One of the panels I made a point of attending was "A Dose of Reality: Forensics"


Zulema Seligsohn, who translated "Poisons in Mysery Literature" by Alfonso Velasco Martin, which focused on usage in the Golden Age of Mystery.

Dr. Doug Lyle, author and forensics expert.

Priscilla Royal: author of mysteries set in the 13th century.

Thus, we have quite a span of time covered in the panel, which was fascinating. (And because Dr, Lyle was there, laugh-out-loud funny)

Seligsohn pointed out Agatha Christie used a lot of poisons in her writing, and was 100% accurate in her descriptions. Many might not know that was a nurse and pharmacy assistant, so she had the background for what she wrote about.

Dr. Lyle reminded authors that the public "knows" (or thinks it knows) a lot about forensics based on watching television. Writers must make sure they know the facts, although they're not necessarily needed on the page.

Priscilla Royal commented on the use of forensics in that time period. Pre-forensics were used to define a ring of possible suspects. For example, in medieval times, killing with a sword would eliminate the class of people, such as peasants and farmers, who didn't have swords. Poisons were likely 'weapons' and often used by women (as they still are). Women were the herbalists, and knew what drugs and dosages were lethal.

Dr. Lyle told us that science does not prove or convict. It provides a linkage, and points fingers away from suspects. It excludes suspects. Ideally, it will exclude all but the killer, but it's still a matter of exclusion.

Seligsohn mentioned that in Christie's works, the suspect who lies is usually guilty. Dr. Lyle agreed that this still holds true today. He discussed planning a perfect murder. It's a matter of the HOW + WHY = WHO. How is the method, Why is the motives. He suggested that the only perfect murder would be a long range sniper kill. There is only 1 piece of evidence. The sniper would have to destroy the weapon and then never mention anything to do with the crime to anyone.

In medieval times, people lived where everyone knew everyone. It was much harder to get away with a crime.

Poisons as a weapon of choice have the advantage that the murderer doesn't have to be present. Dr. Lyle related a story where he was standing in line for coffee with another author who seemed fascinated with the coffee grinder. The author said, "You could put cyanide on the blades, and that portion of the coffee would be at the bottom of the customer's bag, so the person wouldn't get to the poisoned coffee for at least a week. (Mystery authors tend to think that way)

Dr. Lyle went on to say that arsenic is still a poison of choice and he estimates there's at least one misdiagnosed case of arsenic poisoning a week, masquerading as stomach trouble. (He also said women tend to use poison because it's less messy than stabbing or shooting and they don' have to clean up the aftermath)

There was a brief discussion of motives, and Lyle mentioned that self-image is a reason that people might be driven to murder. I found this exceptionally validating, since it's a motive I've used in one of my manuscripts. People who have a certain standing in the community, who are identified by their status, might try anything to avoid having their secrets revealed, and that could escalate to murder.

Royal said that it's also common for the 'straw that broke the camel's back' to be the trigger for murder, citing the example of the wife whose husband beat her one too many times. She also said that the community at that time might even have supported the wife, understanding that the husband was an abuser and "verifying" that the husband's death was accidental.

There were more panels, and I'll continue to recap, but tomorrow, be sure to come back for my guest, Ellis Carrington, whose topic is "Have You Hugged Your Characters?"


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

Thanks for sharing this with us. Forensics have become increasingly important in mystery/crime fiction just as science has increased in importance in apprehending criminals in real life crime.

Since I also write romantic mysteries, I'll be very interesting in learning more about your panel discussion.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great info and recap, Terry! Glad you're home safely.

Maryann Miller said...

Thanks for the great recap on an important topic. It is important that we get the details of forensics right and not rely on what we see on TV.

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - I'll try to do a recap of the Sex & Romance in Mystery panel, but because I was on it, I wasn't taking notes.

Elizabeth - thanks, and thanks for the tweet

Maryann - basically, NOTHING on the CSI shows is correct as far as how things actually unfold. However, your readers think it is, so you have to address both the expectation & reality.

Carol Kilgore said...

Lots of great information. Thanks for sharing.

Samantha Gentry said...

Terry: I've attended several of the Left Coast Crime conferences in the past and found all of them interesting and informative. Thanks for passing on this information.

Terry Odell said...

Carol, my pleasure, as always

Samantha - This was my first LCC. Happy to share.

Ray said...

Great blog Terry. Several years ago I was in Torquay, UK, home town of Agatha Christie where I visited her museum. There was a first edition of every book she wrote. I got to see her pharmacy equipment and her nurses uniform. There were photos of her and her family including her father in his gentlemen's club. There really was quite a bit to see. A couple of years later I had my bicycle on the ship and rode out to her estate where her daughter still lived. I couldn't get very far onto the property as it was closed on Sunday, but the rest of the week the estate sold flowers. The estate is at the edge of the River Dart with sailing vessels anchored nearby. On the other side of the river is Dartmoor, which figures in many British novels. Here is a link to a web site about Greenway Estate.


EngridE said...

Very interesting blog post, Terry. I think I found my way over here from an email of yours from Savvy Authors. Would love to read more about the conference from your perspective. I'm trying to decide if my WIP (editing & revising) is a "romantic suspense" or a "mystery with a romantic element." Will look to see if you're teaching any upcoming courses.


Terry Odell said...

Ray - thanks so much for the information.

Engrid - thanks - I'll be posting more bits and pieces throughout the week--or as long as it takes. I'm teaching a class on Dialogue at Savvy in June. Hope to see you there.