Mysteries have always appealed to me; while still a high school student, I was intrigued enough by the existence of real-life murder cases to pluck The Scalpel of Scotland Yard: The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury by Douglas G. Browne and E.V. Tullett from my father’s shelves. Published in 1952, long before the advent of the CSIs, it was my first introduction to the role of forensics in real criminal cases. I was fascinated by the scope of Sir Bernard’s knowledge and, for a while, even thought I’d like to be a pathologist or a forensic anthropologist. Instead, it’s become my virtual career, pursued vicariously through a variety of wonderful fictional characters who devote themselves to solving crimes by looking at the victims. Three series, by authors Elly Griffiths, Ariana Franklin, and Simon Beckett, supply my forensics fix with particularly enjoyable characters.
Elly Griffith’s The Crossing Places is the first in her series about Dr. Ruth Galloway, a lecturer in forensic anthropology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, located near the real market town of King’s Lynn on the east coast of England. Ruth doesn’t spend a lot of time in the lab; she is happiest getting her hands dirty in the field and finds solace walking through the potentially treacherous marshlands surrounding her isolated coastal home. On a walk after a storm, she discovers a child’s skeleton newly exposed on the shoreline, near the site of a previously discovered henge. DCI Nelson is drawn immediately to the scene: He has been haunted by the unsolved disappearance of one child and is soon investigating the disappearance of another. Fearing the worst, Nelson turns to Ruth’s intelligence and methodology to help decipher some crucial evidence that connects this modern murderer to long-forgotten rituals. Archeological investigations, past and present, bring some of the brutal history of this part of England to life and introduce the wide range of personalities in Ruth’s circle of friends. The expertise Ruth demonstrates in her academic pursuits does not, however, extend into her private life where she is, thankfully and sometimes amusingly, not a superwoman.
For more information about her books, archeology, and Norfolk please visit Elly Griffith’s official website.
Missing children are also the catalyst for The Mistress of Art and Death by Ariana Franklin (the pen name of Diana Norman), the first in her four-book series set in 12th century Cambridge, England and featuring the strangest anomaly for that superstitious time: a woman doctor. Cambridge’s children are being murdered and their deaths blamed on its population of Jews; in Henry II’s pragmatic view, their expulsion from the community would presage severe economic hardship for the area. Unfortunately, his ability to protect them has been severely compromised by that little misunderstanding over Thomas à Becket. The real murderer must be brought to justice—yesterday—but no one in England, including Henry II, is expecting their candidate for savior will be a small, “dowdy” Italian doctor named Adelia Aguilar. The perceived arrogance of her medical knowledge, her disinterest in traditional “female adornment,” and her reliance on science over religion make her a dangerous choice to solve a series of murders of children in medieval Cambridge. She is caught in one of Henry II’s political whirlwinds but also by her need to find the truth. Trained at the Medical School of Salerno, where her studies were encouraged and allowed the freedom to flourish, Adelia is a self-described “doctor of the dead.” Ordered to Cambridge by the King of Sicily to aid Henry II’s efforts to save England’s Jewish community, Adelia is accompanied by Simon of Naples, the King’s agent, and her Arab servant, Mansur. Their long journey to Cambridge brings Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to mind, complete with knights and prioress and a sometimes humorous societal cross-section of rag-tag petitioners. Along the rough journey, Adelia is presented with a surprising emergency that will establish her medical skill and provide, with the help of her grateful patient, a way to conceal both her talent and real mission from the populace, who really wouldn’t understand.
[A non-forensical aside: If you like intrigue in a historical setting, Diana Norman has written several other books under that name as well as a few others as Ariana Franklin that are not part of the Adelia Aguilar series. LibraryThing provides the most comprehensive list of her work as well as links to biographical information. Also, C.J. Sansom writes a wonderfully descriptive series whose first book, Dissolution, set in the paranoid atmosphere of Cromwell’s England in 1537, introduces Matthew Shardlake, the most anomalous of anomalies, an honorable lawyer. Read more about this series and his other historical novels on his official website.]
The dead “speak” in most novels that feature experts in the forensic arts but in nowhere near the detail Simon Beckett employs in his modern series featuring Dr. David Hunter, a brilliant forensic anthropologist who, after a personal tragedy, abandons an enviable career to establish himself as a GP in the medical practice of a rural Norfolk village. The Chemistry of Death is the first book of the series and its first sentence “The human body starts to decompose four minutes after death” barely gives the reader time to prepare for the vividly precise description of decay that follows. When the body of a former patient is discovered, Dr. Hunter is brought briefly to the scene. Despite his best effort to stick to the parameters of his adopted specialty, his forensic instincts kick in as the indicators and evidence of what really happened shine at him like neon but are overlooked by the swarming plod. English village mysteries in the hands of Agatha Christie and M.C. Beaton have made imaginative use of the traditional undercurrents in seemingly quiet, seemingly predictable village life but Simon Beckett takes the genre to a darker place. The suspense builds among the villagers as more women disappear with no one seeing or hearing anything, an effective device reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. When the bodies are found (here and throughout the series), Dr. Hunter’s professional observations are scientifically accurate and respectful of a natural process, no matter how unnaturally it got started. This series may not be not for the easily queasy, but Dr, Hunter’s science-based insights into criminal behavior make him a welcome addition to my virtual course in the forensic arts. Read more about this series, including first chapters, at Simon Beckett’s official website.