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.