Home News Forensic specialists talk books, T.V., and real science at Concordia

Forensic specialists talk books, T.V., and real science at Concordia

by Laura Marchand March 16, 2016

Bones writer and producer Kathy Reichs talks about the fallacies in crime fiction

Flipping through the channels, it’s impossible to escape a certain genre: it’s not sitcoms, news programs, or reality T.V. For the past decade or two, there has been a juggernaut that’s ruled the airwaves—the ever familiar and ever-present “forensic drama.”

The fact behind the fiction was the topic of Concordia University’s newest Thinking Out Loud talk. The event “Connect the Dots—The Science of Crime” was presented in collaboration with The Globe and Mail on March 14 at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in the Hall building. The panellists included Cameron Skinner, an associate professor at Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Brigitte Desharnais, a PhD student studying toxicology; and Kathy Reichs, forensic anthropologist and award-winning novelist of the Temperance Brennan series, which was adapted into the popular television show Bones.

A professor in North Carolina, Reichs participated in a faculty exchange, leading her to teach at Concordia University for a year in the early ‘90s. While here, she became involved with Montreal’s local police—a role she refers to as “their bone lady.” She participated in solving a serial murder case in Montreal, which was the foundation of her first novel, Déjà Dead. That work went on to win the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Reichs also participated in identifying remains found at ground zero following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, testified at the United Nations Tribunal on Genocide, and is one of only 82 anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

Reichs believes that the public infatuation with forensics likely began in the early ‘90s, with a significant high-profile case. “In ’94, we had the OJ trial, where everyone was exposed … 24/7, wall-to-wall [with forensics]. We heard about blood splatter patterns and knife trajectories. I think maybe that was the source of when people started saying ‘Huh, there are people that do this in labs, let’s think about it and read about it.’”

She continued to describe the challenges that come with basing her books around forensics. “When you’re writing fictions and you’re writing science for fiction, it has to be brief and it has to be entertaining and it has to be jargon-free,” explained Reichs. “You can’t use acronyms and special terminology, so there’s a skill to doing that.”

Desharnais agreed that there are a lot of instances of bad science in popular culture that can be hard for someone working in the field to swallow. “There are a few shows [I watch] and I’m like ‘this is impossible,’ ‘this isn’t a standard technique,’ or ‘they can’t do this in 20 minutes!’” laughed Desharnais.

Skinner joked that he often looks at the fictional instruments in popular culture enviously, “but nobody seems to sell them!” he added.

Often, toxicology reports are not as quick as shown on television, explained Desharnais. “For toxicology in [shows like] CSI … usually the body is still on the table and they have the toxicology result, which is always maddening to me,” said Desharnais. “In the real world … the target is [to have] 90 per cent of the [toxicology results] out in 90 days.”

When asked if there was science that could solve some of Canada’s biggest issues—such as the staggering numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the country—Reichs said that science simply cannot solve mysteries on its own.

“Science can’t solve everything,” she said. “Some of it—a lot of it—is still done by the investigating officers and there has to be motivation for that.”

It is part of a patchwork of dots and teamwork that goes into crime-solving, the panellists said—a teamwork that is rarely portrayed in mass media.

“That’s one of the big fallacies when I watch shows,” said Reichs. “You have the same person who goes to the crime scene, who collects the remains, then goes back to the lab and does the analysis, and then goes out with the detective and interviews witnesses—it really doesn’t work that way.”

Instead, it is a patchwork of different specialized roles, she explained. “CSI techs go out to the crime scene, collect the evidence, bring them back—they’re done,” explained Reichs. “Then the lab scientists do their analysis … then they’re done.”

Skinner says that what is also often ignored is the long, arduous process that goes into science—a divide he describes as being stuck “in the stone age” and looking ahead. “It’s a systematic approach towards problem solving, and that is the essence of science,” said Skinner. “It’s not haphazard approach, it’s not a ‘get up in the morning and I’ve got the theory of everything’—it’s a very slow, methodical process.”

Reich’s show Bones has just been renewed for a 12th (and final) season on FOX, making it the longest-running scripted drama in the network’s history. Her books, the Temperance Brennan series and the young adult Virals series, are available in bookstores.

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