Sunday 18 October 2009

Forensic evidence, then and now

The highlight of the past week was definitely on Thursday evening, when I took part in Wirral Libraries' Bookfest, sharing a platform at Bebington Library with Margaret Murphy. Our theme was forensic evidence, past and present. Margaret gave a talk about modern forensic techniques, illustrated with lots of graphics. Eternally low-tech, I chatted about the Crippen case, and focused on the role played by Bernard Spilsbury’s evidence in securing the conviction of the little doctor. Amongst its many fascinations, the Crippen story was a landmark in the developing importance of forensic science, and the persuasive nature of Spilsbury's testimony was critical in leading the jury to convict, so that Crippen was sent to the gallows.

Yet that evidence, viewed from the present day perspective, seems pretty controversial. I’ve mentioned before that the barrister Andrew Rose has written a very good book about Spilsbury, highlighting the flaws in his work. But whatever his faults, Spilsbury was undoubtedly a fascinating character, an expert who held juries in the palm of his hand. But you wouldn’t get away with a similar approach these days.

I was especially glad to be involved with the Bookfest for two reasons. First, I used to visit Bebington Library regularly in the 80s, when I was a member of Wirral Writers, who are still going strong in the same location. Second, there has recently been a shocking threat to close almost half the libraries in Wirral. Happily, that threat now seems to have been lifted, but I have the utmost sympathy for the staff, for whom it must have been a very unsettling time. They are a great bunch of people, with whom I’ve worked several times over the years, and they deserve support. I find it hard to believe that Wirral Council could not find better ways to make savings elsewhere.

Finally, I must say how much I enjoyed working with Margaret. She is the Chair of the CWA and has a great deal on her plate, but she always gives the impression of being completely unflappable, even when her Powerpoint presentation temporarily refuses to behave. After the event, Margaret and her husband Murf invited me to their home for a meal, and as always I found their company delightful.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting post, Martin! Forensic science had certainly been revolutionized over the years. I wonder what would have happened in the Crippen case if some of today's techniques had been available then.

Incidentally, I read Mostly Murder , a fascinating autobiography of Sir Sidney Smith, who more than once ran up against Spilsbury in court. It's got an interesting perspective on Spilsbury.

Dorte H said...

I like ´unflappable´, nicely self-explanatory term!

And somehow the only way to teach me anything remotely scientific is to relate it to a crime story which is why I love forensics.

E.J. Stevens said...

I too just love book festivals. Unfortunately I've seen a decline in the number of festivals this year, I assume due to the flagging economy.

I've only just stumbled upon your blog but am already enjoying it immensely! I also just added your book Dancing for the Hangman to my wish list. :)

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, I know that Mostly Murder is a bit of a classic, but I confess I've never read it. I take it you recommend it!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte, strange as it seems to me now, I did once write a book about csi work and forensic evidence, as well as police methods and famous cases. It was called Urge to Kill.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello E.J. Thanks very much for stopping by. I gather that some festivals are indeed under threat, though fortunately most of those which are crime-specific seem unaffected and I only hope that continues.
Hope you like Dancing for the Hangman.

Anonymous said...

Martin -
Just a word of thanks for your kind words about my blog on Maxine's most recent post. Much appreciated!!
I learn a great deal from your blog, too, and enjoy every post.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Margot - it's a very impressive blog, and I wanted to say so given that I'm not quite as assiduous a commenter as I'd like to be.

Minnie said...

Forensic science has certainly changed beyond all recognition since Bernard Spilsbury's day, its development having accelerated to dizzying speed. Must be hard for strictly contemporary police procedural writers to keep pace.
Good for you, Martin, in your support of libraries and librarians. I, too, have found the former invaluable and the latter admirable. Socio-economic trend seems to be against them, tho'; very worrying.

Anonymous said...

Take this as a 2nd recommendation to go and read Mostly Murder. As my knowledge of Spilsbury came from the book, I find it slightly ironic that it is Spilsbury who left a deeper impression in history. :)