In the last few years forensic science has become an area of interest to many on account of TV shows like CSI & Silent Witness. Therefore I’m extremely lucky as a crime author to not only have a retired copper on hand to help me with procedural issues in the DI Frank Lyle series, but also a fellow Indie crime author who is a real life CSI (or SOCO as we call them in the UK). Paul Trembling’s extremely obnoxious CSI, Ben Drummond, is a big part of his books Can of Worms and story collection Pattern for Murder. I have invited Paul along to tell us about the nitty-gritty of CSI work. Paul has been a great help to me especially with reference to the novella Dead of Winter, which features in DI Frank Lyle’s Casebook Vol 2.
So Paul, it’s over to you.
A Typical CSI Day.
Actually, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a typical day for a CSI! When you come in to start your shift, you can never be sure what’s waiting for you. You might need to liaise with the Fire Service about a suspected arson, or attend a CID briefing in regards to an armed robbery. There might be an assault scene to go to, or if there’s been a major crime, you could be part of a team of CSI’s allocated to the job.
And so on! But the largest category of crime’s that require CSI examination are burglaries, so let’s take that as being the closet to ‘typical’ you’re likely to get!
So let’s assume a fairly normal scenario. A semi-detached house in a suburban area. The family have been out all day – at school or at work – and have come home to find that they’ve become victims of crime.
It’s not a pleasant discovery, and the CSI has to be sensitive to how the victim or victims are feeling. Reactions vary from anger to tears to philosophical resignation. You see all shades, and sometimes it can be very painful to observe. But in order to do your job properly, you have to stay detached. Sympathetic, but not involved. And you have to ask questions.
That’s the first essential of any crime scene examination – getting as much background information as possible. The first question might be ‘Where did they get in?’ but there’s a whole lot more detail that you need. Supposing the answer to where is ‘Through the back door’, then the next question is ‘How did they get in?’
Was the door kicked open? If so, we’re looking for footwear marks. Was it forced open? In which case, there might be some indication of a tool being used. Screwdrivers, crowbars, garden forks are among the most common, and they can all leave distinctive marks.
Or perhaps a glass pane (in door or window) has been smashed. If they’ve climbed through broken glass, there’s always a possibility that they might have cut themselves – and even a small amount of blood can give a DNA profile that will identify the offender! Or perhaps there are fibres from their clothing caught on the sharp edges?
There are many possible ways by which a criminal might enter a house, and most of them leave traces of some sort. Not all of those traces lead to the identification of an offender, but it’s the CSI’s job to assess each one, and recover the best possible evidence.
The Point Of Entry is often the main focus of the examination, but by no means the only one. At the scene, you also have to consider what the route to the door or window was. Did they come over a fence? Did they tread in a flower bed – and perhaps leave a footprint? Did they drop something on the way in or out? A tool perhaps – or even something more personal? It’s not unknown for mobile phones to be found!
And once inside, where have they been? What have they touched? If the TV’s been taken, did they move the TV table to get at it? Every item handled by the offenders, every surface they might have put a hand on, has to be considered for possible fingerprints. And there are a variety of ways that fingerprints can be recovered. The CSI has a number of different sorts of fingerprint powder available for different surfaces. Some items don’t respond well to any sort of powder – but with the correct chemical treatments in a lab, they might produce good fingerprints.
There’s a lot to think about, even and a ‘normal’ burglary. And the scene examination isn’t the end of it either – back in the office there’s a lot more work to do, completing reports and processing exhibits. But that’s not the exciting part of the job!
Though perhaps it is typical ...
Here is an extract from Chapter Four of Paul’s excellent SOCO novel Can of Worms – well worth a read for anyone with even the slightest interest in forensics.
Marcie had started scribbling notes on her pad: she looked up to see her informant scuttling back into Number Nineteen, and slamming the door behind her. ‘What’s got into her?’ Marcie asked aloud. She looked up the street, and saw Vince Maddox striding towards her, face radiating fury and barely suppressed violence.
Abruptly, her stomach clenched tight with pure fear. She fumbled with the keys, started the engine – but he was already there, standing right in front of the car, hands braced on the bonnet and glaring at her through the windscreen. Daring her to run over him.
She tried to go into reverse, and stalled. Hit the door lock, started to raise the window, but he’d come round to the side, had his hands over the edge of the glass, face just inches from hers – and her last reserves of courage drained away. She took her finger off the button, and stared dumbly at him, quivering.
She expected violence. She could see it in him, the desire to smash her face, to break bone and tear flesh. She expected him to shout, to swear, to blast obscenities at her. She flinched as he reached out his hand. But he merely held her chin, firmly, but almost gently. And he spoke in a very low voice.
‘You are a stupid little bitch.’
‘I…’ Marcie gasped. ‘I...’
He shook his head. ‘Did you think we wouldn’t notice you? Parked up in the same place every day? Or did you think that we wouldn’t know a police car, just because it’s unmarked? And now you’re talking to the neighbours. Very stupid to think that we wouldn’t see.’
‘I was eating.’
His hand clenched a little tighter on her chin. ‘Oh, no, don’t bother saying anything. I don’t want to hear it. Just listen, right?’
‘That’ll do for a yes.’ He pulled her head closer to the window, turned it so he could speak directly into her ear. ‘Now, if my brother were here, he’d threaten you with charges of harassment. Because that’s the way he works. He’s the nice one. But that’s not me. What I do is, I make a phone call. Just one is all it takes, because I already know your name, Marcia Kelshaw. One call, with your name, and then I’ll know all about you. I’ll know where you live, who you live with. I’ll know when you go out, when you get back, where you drink, where you shop. If you’ve got kids, I’ll know about them. I’ll know what school they go to. If you’ve got family, I’ll know about them. Just one phone call and you can never be safe again. Not you, not your family, not your friends, not even your pets.’
‘No. Please.’ Some distant part of Marcie observed with amazement that she was crying.
‘Well then, if you don’t want that, here’s what you do, Marcia Kelshaw.’ He squeezed her chin even tighter, still just short of painful, but enough so that she knew he could hurt her if he chose. ‘You go away from here, and you don’t – ever – come – back. You don’t park here for lunch, you don’t drive by, you don’t walk down the street, you don’t talk to the neighbours. Clear?’
‘Good. Because if I ever see you again, Marcia Kelshaw, I’ll make my call. And very bad things will happen. Still clear?’ He let go of her chin at last.
Not trusting herself to speak, she nodded.
He smiled. Not pleasantly. ‘So, even a stupid bitch like you can learn, eh? Bye bye.’
He turned away and was striding briskly down the street.
Sobbing and shaking, Marcie somehow managed to start the car, and drove off as fast as she could. Drove blindly, barely seeing through the tears, barely aware of where she was. Hardly noticing the horns blaring and lights flashing as she shot out of the end of the street, without looking. Not even registering the thirty m.p.h. speed limit as she floored the accelerator, thinking only of getting away from Cyrus Street, as far and fast as possible.
When she had regained some control, and slowed down, she was numbly surprised to find herself driving by Callahan’s. Still locked up and empty. She pulled in to the side of the road opposite, and rested her head on the wheel.
Down in the foot well, she saw the mangled remains of her lunch. Her stomach clenched again and she barely got the door open in time before she started heaving.
A few minutes later, her stomach was sore and empty, but her mind had started to clear.
Vince Maddox had been right, she realised. She had been stupid. Out of her depth. She had opened a can of worms, just as Jim had warned – but not the one he’d had in mind. This was much worse.
One thing was clear; her vague suspicions about the Maddox’s were fully justified. Unless it was all bluff – which she couldn’t believe - Vince’s threats indicated a depth of criminal involvement beyond anything in her experience. He had contacts, he had access to information and resources, and he would use any means necessary to gain his ends.
There was no doubt at all in Marcie’s mind that Vince Maddox was capable of murder. He’d totally convinced her of that. Which meant that he would have been capable of Ben’s murder.
So there it was, out in the open now. Something that she’d felt in her guts ever since her first meeting with Maddox. A man like that, linked by the car, the Cavalier with Ben’s blood on…
Tenuous, perhaps. But possible. It felt possible.
Well, now it was time to stop acting on gut instinct, and start thinking. Because, if she was stupid again, Vince would carry out his threat.
Thinking about that brought a renewed wave of fear – but something else as well - anger. A surge of pure fury swept over her. ‘Bastard!’ she said vehemently. Then she shouted it ‘Bastard!’
‘He threatened me – he threatened my family – You BASTARD….’ She slammed her hands against the wheel, screaming obscenities. ‘You won’t do this – you can’t…’
With an effort, she regained control, feeling weak and shaking from an excess of emotion. ‘Calm, Marcie, calm…’ she said to herself. She couldn’t give way to either fear or rage. She had to be in control if she was to find a way out of this situation.
Vince had been in control. One of the most frightening things about him was how much in control he had been, in spite of the rage in him. For Vince Maddox, anger was not an emotion but a tool. A weapon he could use with the destructive force of a bomb or the precision of a scalpel.
Thinking of that reminded Marcie of the way his hand had felt as he’d held her chin. Logically, it was better than a fist in the face – but it felt almost as bad. An assault in a deeper and more subtle way than pure violence.
A touch, she remembered, of his bare hand.
The same hand with which he’d held on to the window as she tried to raise it.
A slow smile spread across Marcie’s face as she looked at the window – still in the same position as it had been when Vince had gripped it.
‘Stupid little bitch, am I, Vince?’ she said to herself. ‘Well, perhaps you’re not so bright either.’
Carefully not touching the window, she got out of the car, went to the boot, opened her case, took out a pot of aluminium powder and a brush.
‘Right, now we’ll see…’
With just a touch of powder on the brush, she began to dust the window, inside and out.
One of the things she liked best about a SOCO’s job was the way fingerprints could appear, as if by magic, on apparently clean surfaces, when you applied the powder. To see a beautiful, clear fingerprint develop was always a thrill for her, making up for all the smudgy marks and negative results. Vince Maddox’s prints on her car window were as sharp and fresh as any she’d seen: thumbprint on the outside, full set of fingers inside. Pointing down, showing clearly how he’d gripped the glass.
‘OK, now let’s lift them.’
Marcie took out a roll of lifting tape – like Sellotape, but much clearer, stickier, and more expensive. She cut off a length and, holding her breath, carefully smoothed it over the thumbprint. Then repeated the procedure on the inside.
The last stage could be the trickiest. Every SOCO could tell tragic tales of how perfect fingerprints had been lost because the tape tore. Or a sudden gust of wind wrapped it round their fingers.
Very carefully, she peeled the tape away from the glass, laid it down on a sheet of clear acetate, sliced off the excess with a scalpel blade.
Did it again on the inside.
Held the results up to examine.
The skin ridge detail was brilliantly sharp. Textbook stuff. She could see cores, she could see deltas, she could see ridge-endings and bifurcations in abundance. More than enough for a fingerprint expert to work on.
‘Got you, Vince,’ she said softly. ‘Got you, you bastard.
’You can buy Can of Worms HERE