The Truth is in the Spatter (and Other Details that Matter)
The idea for my first novel, Façade, sprouted after an unidentified body arrived at the ME’s Office. Post mortem changes altered the body’s physical appearance making visual identification impossible. Skin sloughed off the remains. I removed the section of skin from the man’s thumb and used it to ink a thumbprint. A lab tech identified him through Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).
Accurate details prove important for those of us who include crime scenes in our writing. In the real world, scene investigators arrive after the crime has been committed. Initially, they may have little or no information about the incident except what they can see. Every CSI wants answers in three basic areas: What was the victim doing before the crime that led to the incident; what happened at the time the crime was committed, and; what took place afterward? They rely on accuracy or risk losing the case.
As writers, we create answers to these questions ahead of time or decide as we write and revise. One or two details may be all that is necessary when writing the crime scene. Whatever we use, we want to make certain the facts fit the scenario we are trying to portray without overloading it with details. We must rely on accuracy or risk losing readers.
For example, time of death is important to detectives investigating a homicide. Determining an accurate time frame within which death occurred may mean the difference between accepting the suspect’s alleged alibi as true or proving he/she had ample time to commit the murder. A body undergoes changes following death. These include rigor mortis (stiffening of the body), livor mortis (also known as lividity: the pooling of blood as it settles in the dependent portions of the tissues), and decomposition. These begin at death, though they may not be evident for hours. Other considerations include environmental factors such as the surroundings and temperature.
A detective must decide which items to collect and preserve, tangible and intangible, before he/she departs a crime scene or else potential evidence may become contaminated or lost.
A blood spatter (notice I use spatter, not splatter) pattern might provide answers to questions that might otherwise remain unknown. If persons investigating JFK’s assassination had performed blood spatter analysis on the car he was riding in at the time they would have identified the shooter’s position and we would know whether the shot came from the Texas School Book Depository or the grassy knoll.
The investigator may rely on ballistics to match a projectile to the firearm and/or the stippling pattern (gunpowder burns) on skin around a gunshot wound.
If you’re not sure about something related to forensics that you would like to incorporate in your prose, ask. Police officers and detectives, coroners, and medical examiners are available to us and most will gladly answer a few questions for you. Talk to them. Chat about your crime scene and make use of the resource of their experience. Compare what they tell you with what you have heard from others or watched on TV and note any differences.
One thing is certain. A person always leaves something wherever they go (hair, fiber, etc.) and takes something with them that they did not have when they got there. A CSI knows these things. They employ this knowledge to solve cases.
Plug into their expertise.
"Shane Kinsey" is a Senior Forensic Investigator for a national consulting firm in the field of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. His specialties are blood spatter analysis and recovery of human skeletal remains. He is a certified POST instructor, and was part of the development team for “Quincy,” a software program designed for coroners/medical examiners.