Monday, May 8, 2017

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Ten

"Forensic Chemistry in Golden-Age Detective Fiction: Dorothy L. Sayers and the CSI Effect."
By Lee Sullivan Berry.
First appearance: Distillations, Summer 2014.
Article (18 pages as a PDF).
Online at Distillations Magazine (HERE).
"The ancestors of today’s CSI shows can be found between the cheap covers of early-20th-century detective stories. One woman, faithful to the science of her day, helped shape the rules of crime fiction and public understanding of forensic science."
When it comes down to whether, in detective fiction, art imitates life or vice versa, it's probably best to say there's a synergistic relationship between the two, each one 
influencing and building on the other—which, perhaps inevitably, brings us to Dot 
Sayers and the Detection Club:

  "[Agatha] Christie may be the best-known member of the Detection Club, but readers will not find the forensic descendants of Sherlock Holmes in her work. To find the crime-scene investigators of the golden age, we must turn to the novels and short stories of Sayers."

Lee Sullivan Berry discusses some of Sayers's works which show how much of a "forensic descendant" of the Sage of Baker Street she was:

  ~ Whose Body? (1923): "This short novel features careful observation of the Holmesian variety and little in the way of forensic science. We catch a glimpse, though, of the author’s abiding interest in modern scientific subjects . . ."
  ~ Clouds of Witness (1926): ". . . [a story that] gives him [Lord Peter Wimsey] the
opportunity to collect and compare soil samples and track footprints and tire prints 
in a lovely example of a classic golden-age subgenre: the English country-house 
mystery. We get a peek at life below-stairs when Bunter collects a sample of blood-
stained clothing . . ."
  ~ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928): "A search of the rooms of one of the prime suspects reveals that she has developed recent interests in chemistry and crime fiction—the works of R. Austin Freeman are well represented in her library. Freeman’s detective, Dr. John Thorndyke, was arguably the first fictional forensic medical practitioner, and as Wimsey’s friend Chief Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard points out, Freeman’s stories were 'full of plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship.' In fact, Parker is inclined to see the suspect’s recent interest in the literature of crime as incriminating in itself."
  ~ Strong Poison (1930): "When the judge points out that the arsenic Vane purchased was commercial arsenic, meaning it was colored with charcoal or indigo to prevent its being mistaken (or substituted) for sugar, a reporter covering the trial murmurs, 'How long, O lord, how long shall we have to listen to all this tripe about commercial arsenic? Murderers learn it now at their mother’s knee.'"
  ~ The Documents in the Case (1930): "After The Documents in the Case was published, a chemist wrote to Sayers to inform her that while the plot was fine in theory, in reality natural muscarine—the poison in the toadstool in question—is a rare exception to the rule that natural substances are optically active. Thus, natural muscarine is indistinguishable by polariscope from its synthetic counterpart. The chemist was correct according to what was known of muscarine’s structure in 1930, and Sayers issued a mea culpa." (Subsequently, there was to be a vindicative development which, unfortunately, Sayers didn't live to see.)
  ~ The infamous "CSI effect": "Since 2009 more than 500 scholarly articles have been published investigating the CSI effect from seemingly every angle. Researchers may still argue the case, but undoubtedly few fans of detective fiction attempt to use their favorite books or television shows as a template for what to expect when serving on a jury or as 
primer on getting away with murder."
(Click on image to enlarge.)
(Click on image to enlarge.)
As you can see from this article's discussion of Sayers's works, it's to her great credit that she strove to keep the forensics in her stories as accurate as she could for the time—art imitating life; but also, as an incidental sidelight on her era, we can see how public percep-tions derived from crime fiction shaped expectations—life imitating art—a confirmation that the "CSI effect" is nothing new.

- For a thoroughgoing article about the redoubtable Dorothy Sayers, see the GAD Wiki (HERE).
- If you're hungry for more about the "CSI effect," there's gracious plenty, pro and con, 
on the Interweb:
  ~ Wikipedia (HERE). ~ The New Yorker (HERE). ~ The Crime Museum (HERE).
  ~ CBS News (HERE). ~ The Economist (HERE). ~ NPR (HERE).
  ~ The Balance (HERE). ~ THEMIS (HERE, PDF, 15 pages). ~ TV Tropes (HERE).
  ~ A more cautious view from The National Institute of Justice (HERE).
    "Although CSI viewers had higher expectations for scientific evidence than non-CSI viewers, these expectations had little, if any, bearing on the respondents' propensity to convict. This, we believe, is an important finding and seemingly very good news for 
our Nation's criminal justice system: that is, differences in expectations about evidence 
did not translate into important differences in the willingness to convict."

The bottom line: "Most of us have such dozens of motives for murderin’ all sorts of inoffensive people. There’s lots of people I’d like to murder, wouldn’t you?”
Whose Body?

No comments:

Post a Comment