Methods of Detection: Forensics versus Old-Fashioned Horse Sense

I'm a great fan of forensic sleuthing -- on television, that is. However, I find myself drawn to written fiction in which solutions are found more through human observation than observations in a lab. At one point, I did toy with the idea of writing a "forensic"-based novel, but I just couldn't do it.

My question would be: What's your favorite way of sleuthing? Is there a market for books featuring old-fashioned horse sense? Do the writers in our community feel pressure to include some form of forensic technology (even if it's a McGyveresque "amateur" or a 1920s historical) in the solution of crimes?

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I think you can go anywhere you want in fiction, but in real police work, it's a combination of both. What most people don't realize is that much of the "forensic" evidence can take weeks, years, months to get results back on so detectives must absolutely use their skills of human observation to solve crime.

In THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY series, I do use a great deal of computer forensics and high-tech surveillance equipment because that's what I'm familiar with, but my Black Widows will swear that that accounts for only 50% of their arsenal, the remaining 50% being... women's intuition.

Felicia Donovan
Felicia, it sounds like your books are just the kind of stories I'd love to read. I certainly enjoyed the video at your website. I guess I shy away from using forensics because, while I enjoy it, I'm certainly no expert at it. I guess you could call me a jack of all trades, master of none. For a while there, it just seemed as though "forensic" sleuthing was all the rage, and that if you didn't include it in your work, you were expected to do so. I think there's less pressure to do that nowadays, though.
Persia, many thanks for your comments and welcome to the "Jack of All Trades" club!

Felicia Donovan
Well, I'm a librarian (and a science librarian, at that), so I like to include some esoteric bit of information or technology, even if it's a red herring. "Amateurs" might be professionals in a particular field, and have access to all kinds of mysteries. For instance, I used to be a health agent, and I can think of several nefarious uses for foodborne illnesses. Not a lot of technology, but inside knowledge, paired with good ol' horse sense. I'd be anxious about including anything I wasn't familiar with, though.
Foodborne illness? Wow, that sounds good. I like it because it's the kind of mischief that's accessible to the average man in the kitchen/woman on the street.
Historical mysteries are confined to minimal use of forensics. My protagonist worked in 11th century Japan. The applicable medical and forensic texts (yes, they had some) are amusing rather than useful.
Here are some fun facts on how crime shows have affected the justice system.
The Honorable Donald E Shelton presented the results of a study conducted at Vanderbilt University on this, at the Sisters in Crime Forensics University this past November in St Louis. They surveyed over 1,000 jurors from state felony cases of 2006 to determine if there was any truth to the rumor that the dirth of CSI shows and legal dramas laced with instant forensics information has affected juries. The complete results are at In general, they found that jurors for any type of felony crime expect they will be presented with forensic evidence. For some types of cases jurors who watch CSI had a higher expectation of scientific evidence than those who don't watch the shows. Jurors' demand for scientific evidence of any kind is highest in rape cases and in cases where evidence is circumstantial.

Author Jan Burke says to get a reality check on forensic science in the US go to
And a plug for Forensics Down Under: Austrailian National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFIS) is at Or you can find more info at
(For those of us taking up Daniel's Short Story Challenge!)
I was recently asked to deliver a keynote address for young women interested in science and technology. My theme was "CSI vs. Reality" in which I tried to dispel so many of the myths perpetuated on TV shows.

Law Enforcement agencies all over are feeling the "CSI Effect" whereby citizens expect full forensic analysis on the chip of paint left by the car that dinged their door when they were at the mall. It's equally frustrating to the law enforcement community because here's something you never see on TV - some of these tests are very, very expensive (DNA for example), and only get run on the most serious of crimes. And then you wait and wait, sometimes for a year or more, for results.

Incidentally, all the things you see on TV when the fingerprint or DNA match comes back is based on the assumption that the match is in the FBI's AFIS (fingerprint) or CODIS (DNA) database. Not so. Many times a hit will come back years later because someone got arrested for the first time...

Oh, don't get me started....

Felicia Donovan
There's an inquiry going on in Toronto now about a pathologist who made a lot of "mistakes" that led to convictions. In a story in the paper today ( there was this:

A pathologist can be influenced by the opinions of police when conducting an autopsy to learn how someone has died, a public inquiry heard yesterday.

Phil Campbell, lawyer for several individuals convicted of crimes on the evidence of now-disgraced pathologist Dr. Charles Smith, posed the question about police influence at the Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario.

"You would not dispute the real world fact that police officers who have a theory occasionally come into autopsies pointing the pathologist in the direction of that theory and very visibly hoping that evidence will emerge to support it. That happens in the real world. Doesn't it?" he asked Dr. David Chiasson, the province's former chief forensic pathologist.

"Is there a potential that a pathologist could be influenced in a particular direction at the outset in terms of his thinking? Yes, of course," Chiasson responded, noting this is more likely to happen with an inexperienced pathologist.

The inquiry was prompted by errors Smith made on 20 cases, resulting in miscarriages of justice.
I aways try to include forenic and the technology, it makes the crime writing more interesting. I have to admit in some of my writing I may gross over it a bit for not being too familiar. For me, police procedure when solving and investigating a serious crime would not be police procedure without forensic technology when writing fiction.
Persia, I'm just completing my third adult detective novel. The first two are coming out shortly. I considered this question when I began, but released myself from the burden of forensics, indeed, I released my detective from it. He acknowledges that homicide police departments have the corner on forensics,;what he has are people, motivation, means, and opportunity. I'm more interested in motivation than anything else, so that is what I focus on. Too, I've cultivated some terrific contacts, lawyers, police detectives, researcher-friends, criminal-justice-relatives, who have been invaluable in their willingness to answer questions.


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