Monday 12 July 2010

The Father of Forensics

The Father of Forensics, by Colin Evans, is sub-titled ‘How Sir Bernard Spilsbury Invented Modern CSI’ and at once it is evident that, although Spilsbury has his detractors, Evans is certainly not among them. This is a positive, but I think reasonably balanced, account of the work of the legendary pathologist, and there is certainly room for more than one way of judging the achievements of this flawed, but remarkable, human being.

I became interested in Spilsbury’s work mainly as a result of his involvement in the Crippen case. The trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen, just one hundred years ago, was the first capital case in which Spilsbury testified, and due to the massive publicity that attended the proceedings, the case made his name. His evidence contributed significantly to a guilty verdict, and it is open to question as to whether, in 2010, the forensic clues would have been interpreted in the same way. For instance, Andrew Rose, in his interesting book Lethal Witness, has a notably different take from Evans’.

Nevertheless, Evans makes good use of the fascinating material at his disposal, offering an account that it is in the traditions of British true crime writing, focusing on the many intriguing cases – some of them surprisingly little-known, like that of Gordon Cummins, a war-time serial killer – that filled Spilsbury’s career.

Evans chronicles Spilsbury’s glory years, as well as his tragic decline, afflicted by ill-health, financial and matrimonial problems, and bereavement. Ultimately, the great man met a horrid end, committing suicide in his own laboratory. Evans’ conclusion is that: ‘’Although he was the finest forensic pathologist of his time and a superb diagnostician, it would be churlish to pretend, as some hagiographers have done, that Spilsbury was immune to error...but claims that he was a mere prosecution puppet, the killing arm of British justice, don’t stand up to close inspection.’ I’m not sure ‘churlish’ is the right word, but I tend to agree with Evans’ sentiment. This is an entertaining read, published by Icon, and likely to be of great interest to those with an enthusiasm for forensics.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for this! Spilsbury certainly, as you say, did have his detractors, but he was a major force behind the development of modern forensics. If you haven't yet red Sir Sydney Smith's Mostly Murder, I invite you to read that one, as well. It does take a different tack on Spilsbury, but it gives a fascinating picture of the birth of modern forensics.

Fiona said...

Goodness, Martin - your blog today triggered a long forgotten memory from over 50 years ago that has nothing at all to do with Spilsbury.

My parents ran a sub post offce in Ascot. I borrowed a book from the children's library called The Fingerprint Man: the story of Sir Edward Henry; an adult friend saw it and said that Sir Edward's daughter was the Miss Henry who regularly came ino the post office.She was an old lady....but I was only ten so she might have been any age from 35 upwards!

How about doing a blog entry for us about fingerprints?!

Unknown said...

Wow, interesting post and comments. I haven't read the book but I want to now. I think it's fascinating to find out how everything started.

Also, I've done a review of your book on my blog.

Now, I have to finish my episode of Silent Witness.


Martin Edwards said...

Margot, I think I read the Smith book long ago, but I must admit that my memory is so hazy, I need to refresh it with a re-read!

Martin Edwards said...

Fiona, not only do I appreciate the comments I get, I do take them seriously.
So I shall do as you suggest and post about fingerprints!

Martin Edwards said...

Clarissa, many thanks for your review. A positive response from a fellow writer is always truly gratifying.