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forensicsBy Jeremy Burns

Jan Burke and DP Lyle M.D are not your ordinary writers.  For one, there’s the literary awards:  Burke’s won the Edgar, the Macavity, and the Agatha; Lyle’s won the Macavity and the Benjamin Franklin Silver Award and been nominated for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, and USA Best Book awards.  Then there’s the multiple bestseller lists.  And their leadership roles over the years in ITW and MWA.

But Burke and Lyle also have been instrumental in helping other authors “get it right”—when it comes to forensics.

Before the OJ trial or television’s CSI, Burke and Lyle were at the forefront of forensics in fiction and film.  Though neither are forensic scientists, they have become the go-to sources in Hollywood and the fiction world for accurate, real-world information on forensics.  Along the way, they’ve advocated for the improvement of forensic science and increased public awareness of the funding and other difficulties faced by crime labs across the country.

To the delight of thriller writers everywhere, they recently joined forces to co-host a radio show, “Crime and Science Radio,” for SUSPENSE RADIO.

Burke and Lyle were kind enough to tell THE BIG THRILL about themselves and their work.  They also identified the most common mistakes that fiction writers make in forensics.

Tell us about yourself.

JB: I was born in Texas but have lived in Southern California most of my life.  I was president of the Science Club in high school, but eventually both my lack of attention to my math homework and my love of history classes changed my career direction.  I have a degree in history from California State University, Long Beach—history is an excellent major for people who enjoy research.  From the age of seven, I wanted to write, but had it drummed into my head that no one made a living at it. I didn’t give writing novels a serious try until I was in my late thirties.  Before that, I worked at a wide variety of jobs, but the last one I had before I sold my first book was manager of a manufacturing plant.

DPL: I was born in Huntsville, Alabama but have lived in Southern California for the past thirty-seven years. My childhood interests revolved around football, baseball, and building rockets in the backyard. This latter pursuit was common in Huntsville during the 1950s and 60s due to the nearby NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center. I then received a Chemistry Degree from the University of Alabama (ROLL TIDE) followed by medical school and internship, also at Alabama. Then on to Houston, Texas for an Internal Medicine residency at the University of Texas at Houston, and Cardiology fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute, also in Houston. Since then, I’ve practiced Cardiology in Orange County, California.

Tell us about your background in forensics.

JB: I am not a forensic scientist—I want to be clear that I don’t mistake doing research for a book with the sort of expertise real forensic scientists have.

As I did research for my books, I read forensic science textbooks.  I wanted to know more about the scientific evaluation of evidence, so I took laypersons’ classes in forensic science.  This was “pre-OJ,” which in my opinion is the dividing line for interest in forensic science.  These classes in the early 1990s were generally designed for police officers, private investigators, and attorneys, intended to help them understand more about what forensic scientists were doing at crime scenes, various types of evidence, and what this new-fangled DNA evidence (first used in a criminal case in the U.S. in 1989; CODIS was not established until 1998) was all about.  When I told other people I was taking forensic science classes, half of them thought I was studying to be on a debate team.  No idea what I was talking about. After the OJ case, when FORENSIC FILES and other programs on cable first began attracting viewers, these courses were suddenly packed, and they grew more crowded after CSI aired.

Fortunately for me, I had already made many connections to forensic scientists before then.  For example, I had taken a weeklong course in forensic anthropology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, attended meetings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), and in 2003 co-taught a course for the UCLA Extension on getting police procedure and forensic science right in crime fiction.  I taught that with Barry A.J. Fisher, then director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Scientific Services Division, and LASD homicide detective Elizabeth Smith.  It was while teaching that course that I learned that in all but a very few cases, DNA was not being used to solve rapes and murders in LA County.  The labs were so underfunded and so heavily backlogged, there was pressure just to try to get DNA tested in cases that were about to go to trial.  In each case, everyone hoped that a) the tests were completed before the trial date, and b) they didn’t prove the suspect who had been in custody for months (or longer) was the wrong guy.  Needless to say, usually little or no forensic work had been involved in making the arrest.

Not long after the course, I was invited to be the banquet speaker at the annual meeting of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD).  One of the perks of being the speaker was that I could attend sessions being held throughout the meeting.  What I learned was that in England, DNA was being used to identify burglars.  The U.K. was solving property crimes, we weren’t solving murders. The problem was, many of them were working for bosses who forbade them to publicly discuss any difficulties. Many more were under increasing pressure as CSI shows led the public to believe their local labs looked like ones on TV (even the one in Las Vegas looked nothing like the TV lab) and functioned as rapidly.  In 2000, a bill designed to offer them some assistance in modernizing their labs, the Paul Coverdell National Forensic Science Act, had unanimously passed Congress, but the excitement over that had faded because they had learned the difference between “authorized” and “appropriated”:

2001 – Authorized: $35 million

Actually appropriated: ZERO

2002 – Authorized: $85.4 million

Actually appropriated: $5 million

Actually awarded in grants from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ): just under $4.9 million (Most of this funding was given in 2003)

2003 – Authorized: over $134.7 million

Actually appropriated: just over $4.9 million

Actually awarded in grants from NIJ: just over $4.1 million

I thought of the many kindnesses I had received from forensic scientists—their willingness to answer my questions, to imagine outcomes of bizarre hypotheticals, and to patiently explain scientific matters that were far over my head.  I thought of my colleagues who also loved forensic science and how often we were before the public.  On one of the nights before the banquet night, I had dinner with Michael Connelly and ran an idea past him about how we who write could pay it forward—he was immediately supportive.  I called a few other friends from my hotel room, and by the time I spoke at the banquet, I was able to tell ASCLD that a group of writers would be their allies in an effort to tell the public about the real-life problems they faced. (I don’t think most of them thought I’d really do it.) That was ten years ago, and the members of the Crime Lab Project have worked since that time advocating for the improvement of forensic science and increasing public awareness of forensic science realities.

I’ve spent a lot of time during that decade talking to forensic scientists and attending their professional meetings.  I’ve read thousands of articles about forensic science and posted links to them, first through a weekly email newsletter and now daily on Twitter @crimelabproject. For many forensic scientists, this alone was helpful, because even they were not aware of how widespread the problems were.  They were able to take these articles into their bosses and say, “See this big problem (often with lawsuit attached) in county X? Look what happens when we don’t establish protocols, hire enough workers, train people properly…”

We’ve maintained a website and a Facebook page as well.  We’ve worked with other organizations and received endorsements from MWA and Sisters in Crime, and several conventions have allowed us to offer forensic science tracks that also raise awareness.  Together we’ve helped labs and to see increased funding.  We’ve sponsored grants to help forensic science education and have funded scholarships for medicolegal death investigators to attend a leading training program.  There is still much to be done.

DPL: Like Jan, I am not an expert in forensic science and do not work in that field. I learned forensic science more or less on my own. As a physician, if you go to a cocktail party or other social function, people want to ask you about their gall bladder or cholesterol level. Every physician has experienced that. But if you attend writer’s conferences, the other attendees want to know about dead bodies, gunshot wounds, and poisons. I could answer most of their medical questions off the top of my head but much of the forensic stuff I had to research.

I always call Jan the “Godmother” of my writing career. Many years ago she was president of the SoCal Chapter of MWA and wanted to make our newsletter better. It had been a bit thin for a number of years. So at her request I wrote an article titled “Timely Death.” It dealt with how the coroner/ME determines the time of death. It can be found on my website.

The response was amazing. Everyone wanted to know more. So Jan and I developed a monthly Q&A article we called “The Doctor Is In,” where I would answer questions from mystery writers. Again, the medical stuff was easy, the forensic science stuff requiring investigation. So I became immersed in learning that world. It was actually quite easy. The science and terminology of medicine and forensic science are identical, it’s simply viewed from a different perspective. Forensics more or less means “of or related to the law.” So clinical toxicology deals with drugs and poisons in a hospital or patient care setting while forensic toxicology deals with the same science in deaths and other criminal or civil proceedings. The science and the vocabulary are the same.

So, though I’m not qualified to be an expert in the real world of forensic science, I am well equipped to help crime writers with their fictional stories.

Tell us about your experience in fiction.

JB: I’m assuming you want the professional bio so—I’m the author of fourteen books—thirteen novels and a collection of short stories, and I’m finishing the next novel, a standalone thriller. I’m the author of BONES, which won the Edgar for Best Novel, and I’ve won the other awards you’ve mentioned.  My books have been on the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY lists, published internationally, and optioned for film and television.  I’m one of the early members of ITW and I’ve also been active in MWA and Sisters in Crime, and was recently honored to be “given a shilling”—inducted as a Baker Street Irregular.  I read and write across the genre of crime fiction.  I’m also the author of a supernatural thriller, THE MESSENGER, and served as an associate editor on WRITING MYSTERIES, MWA’s handbook for writers.

DPL: I could always spin a yarn—a prerequisite for growing up in the South—and had always wanted to write. But medical training and practice left little time and energy to discover whether I could write a story or not. As every author knows, telling one is an entirely different animal than writing one. I always said that when I retired I’d take a shot at it. But I knew I loved my job and retirement was a long way down the road, so twenty years ago I said, “If not now, when?” I took some classes at the University of California, Irvine and joined a couple of writing groups and began the pursuit. Now I have thirteen books in print, seven fiction, six non-fiction.

I’ve won the Macavity Award and won or been nominated for the others you mentioned. My fiction includes the Samantha Cody and Dub Walker thriller series and the Royal Pains media tie-in novels. Non-fiction includes FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES, HOWDUNNITL FORENSICS, ABA FUNDAMENTALS: FORENSIC SCIENCE  (written for the American Bar Association), and three question and answer books, each a collection of the best questions I’ve received from fiction writers over the years. I also contributed an essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND FOR THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS and the short story “Even Steven” for Thriller 3: Love Is Murder, both ITW anthologies.

I work with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars to help them get the medical and forensic science issues in their stories right.

What are some of the most common mistakes that fiction writers make in forensics?

JB: The most common errors are almost all made by trying to learn forensic science from television and not researching past Wikipedia.  It’s what we think we know that produces howlers.

1) Jurisdiction is essential.

If your story is set in a real place, learn who has jurisdiction over what.  Learn what is handled by a police department, a sheriff’s office, the highway patrol, a state agency, a federal agency. Learn the difference between a holding cell, a jail, and a prison and who runs each. Find out what medicolegal death investigation system is in place—this is an area in which there are huge variations.  A coroner may be an utterly untrained individual who was appointed to the position by helping someone win a seat on a county board of supervisors. (I wish I was making that up, but it is true in hundreds of places.) The coroner may be a mortician with no training whatsoever in forensic science but have the power to order the sheriff not to touch a body. Or your local medical examiner may be someone with a medical degree and years of specialized training in forensic pathology. A medical examiner is not always a doctor, the ones who are doctors are often not pathologists.  In some places, the county district attorney is the coroner.  In others, the sheriff is the coroner.  Find out what the situation is in your setting.

Your local lab may be housed in a former storage room at the police department and have no DNA capability.  It may be that no one in that lab has scientific training.  The fingerprint examiner and the firearms expert may be former patrol officers who were injured on the job and learned their new work from the last guy who held the job before he retired.  They may never have had an opportunity to receive additional education and training due to budget constraints.  Or your lab may be a newly built regional lab that is independent of the police, has new equipment, is safe to work in, and hires only those who have advanced forensic science degrees from FEPAC accredited schools, and regularly spends time training its staff and sends them to national meetings to stay abreast of current technology.

All of the above factors make major differences in investigations, prosecutions, and outcomes.

2) Turn the lights on.

Crime scenes may be dark when the evidence team arrives, but they will light it up.  They are trying to discover minute pieces of evidence and signs that indicate what has happened, how it happened, and who did what to whom.  With the exception of a few types of tests, this cannot be accomplished in the dark.

3) Learn the difference between a revolver and an automatic and which one does not have a safety on it.

Firearms enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who will cringe.  But all things firearms-related are potential pitfalls, and if you are not an expert, you really do need to read up on this subject and run manuscript pages past someone who knows firearms.

4) Conditions vary.

In the case of homicides, environmental factors affect dead bodies, what changes happen to them, and the rate of changes.  Temperature, exposure to the open air, exposure to sunlight, insect and scavenger activity—these are just a few factors.  If you leave a body in a shallow grave in Alaska, something different will happen to it than will to a body left out in the Mohave in August.  The Wikipedia article on rigor mortis will not tell you all you need to know.

5) Make Senses

Crime scenes often smell horrible. Sometimes teeming insect life on or near a corpse make unnerving sounds. Poisonings rarely result in neat, clean scenes in which someone dies in their sleep. Hanging…well, look it up. (While you’re at it, note that in standard English usage, curtains are hung and people are hanged.)   Make use of these and other sensory details that aren’t often portrayed on television.

6) Miracle Workers

In fiction we can have lots of things happen that don’t happen in real life, but if you have someone pour rubber into a dead person’s wound and retrieve a replica of a weapon, you are just making a fool out of yourself.  Unless you are setting your books in a futuristic or supernatural world that has overcome certain laws of physics and known facts about biology, it pays to research enough to know what’s possible and what’s not.

7) What’s bad for the lab may be good for your detective.

Many writers fail to make use of the real-life delays in a way that can help their storytelling.  Your protagonist needs to play an active role in story, and handing every tough problem over to the lab and having them immediately come back and say, “Here’s your answer!” may actually undermine the protagonist.  If, like most real detectives, your protagonist has to try to apprehend a violent offender before he or she flees the jurisdiction, destroys evidence, and harms someone else, in the first few weeks after the crime, that will not always happen with lots of help from the lab.

If you think about it for a moment, backlogs and untrained coroners are problems that are horrible in real life, but can help a book’s plot.

8) Come on in!

I hate seeing passages where someone who has no business in a crime lab is allowed to wander into it and observe evidence being processed, or worse, handle it.  Labs are concerned about contamination of evidence.  They do not let everyone who wants a look to come on by.  Likewise, concerns about biological hazards and contamination limit who attends an autopsy and has changed what they wear if they do attend.  By the way, no professional eats a sandwich while they do an autopsy.  Besides being inaccurate, this has become a terribly clichéd way to demonstrate the supposedly phlegmatic nature of MEs.

9) Dem Bones

Are not wired together.  Once the tendons are gone, they are individual pieces, not able to look like the plastic skeleton hanging in the corner of Mr. Johnson’s science class.  They do not remain in a standing position or sit in chairs, or my personal favorite, float in a life preserver from the Titanic, still wearing an engraved wedding ring on a bony finger (thank you, supermarket tabloid!). The mandible and maxilla part company; if out in the open, wildlife makes off with or damages them, and over time their color is affected by the soil and the sun.

10) DNA doesn’t hold all the answers

If the suspected killer is the victim’s roommate, it will not be worthwhile to look for his DNA in their shared apartment.  It will be full of his DNA, and there is nothing nefarious about that. Now, if his DNA is the only DNA under the victim’s fingernails and he has scratch marks all over his face, that’s another story.  But in general, DNA is expensive to test and is useful in far fewer cases than the public imagines it will be. It is worthwhile to learn when it is actually likely to prove something.

11) Okay, you’ve done your homework

At the other extreme, I have seen writers getting carried away with research, which I admit is my own favorite form of procrastination.  I often hear forensic scientists complain about writers pestering them with questions that could be easily answered by reading Doug’s books, taking a trip to the library, or by the wise use of Google.  Remember, these scientists are often overworked individuals who are trying to help victims and their families—as important as you are, think before you dial or email.  Many writers become convinced that they have a unique scene that demands an expert’s individual attention, when the reality is that often everything they need to know is in a book.  Save that contact for the other types of questions. I also believe that Internet use has made many of us forget that librarians are experts in research who can provide excellent guidance to all kinds of reliable resource material.

I have also seen writers slow down the pace of their novels to a crawl by overloading it with their research.

DPL: Another article I wrote titled “Ten Medical and Forensic Mistakes Writers Should Never Make” has appeared in various blogs over the years but a few highlights include:

The Quick Death: Death rarely arrives instantly. Sure it can occur with heart attacks, strokes, and extremely abnormal heart rhythms but trauma, such as gunshot wounds and blows to the head, the staples of crime fiction, rarely cause sudden death. Yet, how often has a single shot felled a villain? Bang, and he drops dead. In order for that to occur, the bullet would need to severely damage the brain, the heart, or the cervical (neck) portion of the spinal cord. A shot to the chest or abdomen leads to screaming and moaning and bleeding and expletives, but death comes from bleeding and that takes time. How long? It depends on what’s damaged. If a major artery is opened, the bleeding is brisk and death can follow in five minutes, even less. If the bullet or knife blade only strikes tissues and organs, the bleeding is slower and death can take many minutes, or hours, or not at all.

The Pretty Death: I call this the “Hollywood Death.” Calm, peaceful, and not a hair out of place. Blood? Almost never. Except in slasher movies of course and here massive bleeding is the norm. More often, the deceased is nicely dressed, lying in bed, make-up perfect, and with a slight flutter of the eyelids if you look closely. Real dead people are not pretty. I don’t care what they looked like during life, in death they are pale, waxy, and gray. Their eyes do not flutter and they do not look relaxed and peaceful. They look dead.

The Bleeding Corpse: Your detective arrives at the scene a half hour after the murder. Blood oozes from the corpse’s mouth, from the stab wound in his chest, or from the vampire fang marks on his neck. Houston, we have a problem. You see, dead folks don’t bleed. When you die, your heart stops, and the blood no longer circulates. Rather it stagnates and clots and stagnant and clotted blood does not move. It does not drip or gush or ooze or gurgle or flow or trickle from the body. It lies there, separates into a dark red clot with a halo of straw-colored serum, and then dries to a brownish stain.

The One-punch Knockout: You’ve seen this a million times. One character socks another character in the jaw. He goes down like a sack of potatoes and is apparently written out of the story since we never hear from him again. Really? Think about a boxing match. Two guys that are trained to inflict damage and they have trouble knocking each other out. And when they do, the one on his back is up in a couple of minutes, claiming the other guy caught him with a lucky punch. Listen to me. Only James Bond can knock someone out with a single blow, and maybe Mike Tyson, but your car-salesman-turned-amateur-sleuth cannot.

Another common scenario is when a character is hit in the head, placed in the trunk of car, driven 50 miles, tied to a post or a bed or whatever, and then a bucket of water is thrown in his face to revive him. He sputters and is suddenly wake and alert. Not going to happen. If someone is knocked unconscious and doesn’t come around in a few minutes, something very bad is going on. Like a brain bruise (cerebral contusion) or bleeding into or around the brain (subdural hematoma). These require a hospital and a neurosurgeon, not a bucket of water.

Why do you feel forensic accuracy is important in fiction? (I’m playing devil’s advocate on this one.)

JB: We all have different philosophies of writing. I am not (thank you, Lord!) in charge of other writers.  They can do what they like.  For me, telling the story is always the main focus.  Part of telling the story well is making the reader enter that fictional world with me and stay there until the birds are singing, they are late for work, and the house is a mess. I am aware that my audience is becoming more and more sophisticated about forensic science and I don’t want errors to yank them out of that fictional world at any point.  Yet I enjoy letting them in on the difference between what they are seeing on television and what’s going on in the real world of forensic science and with a little effort, I can still intrigue them with some of that information.  I like to take care in my work.

Personally, I find the real stuff fascinating.  I love learning about it and I know many readers do, too.

DPL: I think Jan answered this perfectly. Errors of fact can yank a reader from the story—the cardinal sin for writers in all genres—and can erode the trust between reader and author. Not that fiction can’t stretch the truth a bit but it can’t go completely off the reservation. If so, you lose the reader and the story dies.

Why do you think interest in forensic-based crime dramas, thrillers, and the like have grown over the past decade or so?

JB: I think the interest in crime dramas and thrillers in general has something to do with our desire to see justice done, even if we are cynical about how often it happens in real life, and our far deeper belief that an individual life matters.  Forensic science offers a fascinating way to answer some of the questions that the pursuit of justice may raise.  Some believe (mistakenly, often) that forensic science can remove that “reasonable doubt” that is such a burden to jurors.

Forensic science provides an amazing way to solve crimes, protect the innocent, and resolve questions about the missing and unidentified. As for why now, although DNA has been in use for criminal justice since the late 1980s, and began being used to exonerate the wrongly convicted almost from the start (1989), it hasn’t been in widespread use until about the last decade.  At the time of the OJ Simpson trial, it was clear the public didn’t understand it or other forms of forensic science.  Although writers of crime fiction had already taken up an interest in forensic science and were writing about it, I think the real change in the public’s interest came with the television show FORENSIC FILES.  Appalled by the ignorance of forensic science shown by the response to DNA testimony in the Simpson trial, its creators set out to change that, and I suspect won a much bigger audience than anticipated.  Then “CSI” and friends came along.  Science was sexy.

The last decade has seen advances in forensic science, especially in DNA, but in other areas as well. Materials evidence, questioned documents, latent prints, firearms evidence—all of these areas have been changed by new capabilities and discoveries. We have learned more about problems with eye-witness testimony.  So our perceptions have changed about its importance. If anything, we probably expect evidence to appear where it is unlikely or open to interpretation, and for results to provide more certainty than they can.  Forensic science does so much for us—well beyond its criminal justice applications—and has the potential to do much more.  But to achieve that potential we need to ensure the highest quality of training of staff and handling of evidence, ensure the true scientific basis of evidence testing and interpretation of results, and ensure that research continues.  We need to staff labs at levels appropriate to their workload, give lab personnel safe places to work, and supply equipment that can meet the demands of their work.  We need to implement the 2009 recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. That also means we need to fund forensic science properly, and ensure that labs are independent.  If this sounds expensive, I can assure you that we pay a much, much higher price for not doing it—both a human toll  and millions of dollars lost.

DPL: Science and dirty laundry. Two things that fascinate the public are science and gossip. Science has always held people’s interest because it is a mysterious world filled with all sorts of wonder. The space program, modern medicine, and all the gadgetry people now use on a daily basis are fodder for bar and water cooler talk. It’s cool. It’s new. It’s mysterious. I mean, how does all this stuff really work? Most people are fascinated by these achievements.

And gossip has been around forever. One person’s dirty laundry is another person’s source of entertainment. Watch the news, read the newspaper, or pick up any checkout aisle tabloid. Each is filled with stories the public can voyeuristically devour. The back fence gossip of yesterday is the reality TV of today.

Forensic science combines these two arenas. Crime stories always contain someone’s dirty laundry and often cutting edge science. A natural marriage that the public has embraced and I believe will continue to do so for many years to come.

What resources can authors use to ensure their forensics are as accurate as possible? (feel free to add a shameless plug for your show in this one)

JB: In addition to information in every episode, we list lots of useful links on the website for “Crime and Science Radio.

Follow the CLP on Twitter @crimelabproject and you’ll get links to current forensic science news stories. Also visit our website and follow us on Facebook

The National Academy of Sciences Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009) study can be read free online or downloaded free and gives a great overview

The NFSTC site has lots of info on it.

There are a great many other sites out there.  You may want to take a look at the National Institute of Justice’s site, where lots of studies about forensic science and criminal justice are available.

For good general books, I recommend

Houck, Cristino, and McAdam, The Science of Crime Scenes

Barry A.J. Fisher, Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation

DPL: Jan has already mentioned her Crime Lab Project site and our “Crime and Science Radio” show. I would have to add my own Forensics For Dummies and Howdunnit: Forensics as forensics science sources for crime writers. Also my three Q&A books  not only answer a lot of cool and bizarre questions but also inspire story ideas for fiction writers. Or so I’ve been told. More about each as well as each table of contents can be seen on my website.

Also on my website is a Forensic Science Timeline that catalogs when the various techniques arrived on the scene.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland writes prolifically in the arena of forensic psychology for TruTV’s Crime Library and Psychology Today’s Shadow Boxing segment.

The links are:

Katherine will be my guest on “Crime and Science Radio” later this year so look for her interview. She always has fascinating insights into what makes criminals tick.

Thank you Jan and Doug for sharing your wisdom with THE BIG THRILL.


Jeremy Burns
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