Ian Rankin and Prof Sue Black in conversation
Lovers of crime fiction won’t want to miss this video of renowned crime author Ian Rankin in conversation with the expert forensic anthropologist, Professor Sue Black.
Ian Rankin is one of the world’s best known crime writers, creator of the hugely popular Inspector Rebus novels, as well as a string of stand-alone thrillers. Rankin’s newest novel Even Dogs in the Wild, the 20th Inspector Rebus novel, was published in November 2015.
Professor Sue Black is a leading forensic anthropologist and the Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University. Her forensic expertise has been crucial to a number of high-profile criminal cases. She founded the British Association of Human Identification in 2001, the same year in which she received an OBE for her services to forensic anthropology in Kosovo.
In this RSE ‘Talk Science’ event, Ian Rankin and Sue Black discussed how forensic science is represented in crime literature.
Professor Black opened discussions by describing a recent ‘Massive Open Online Course’ (MOOC) run by the University of Dundee, which focused on forensic science and attracted over 21,500 students, ranging in age from 12 to 91. She stressed the importance of enthusing people of all ages, not just the young; “there is no limit to learning, age doesn’t dim enthusiasm and the ability to learn”. Professor Black describes forensics as an “understandable” science, and the partnership between forensics and literature within the crime genre makes it even more accessible and captures the public’s imagination.
Mr Rankin agreed and commented that, due to the proliferation of crime and detective series on television, the public’s knowledge of forensics is increasing. However, many scientists find this media portrayal of the science laughable; it never questions the financial cost of some of the processes involved or whether the equipment used on screen is available in the ‘real world’; and the crimes are solved, generally, within 45 minutes. At the heart of these television programmes, however, lies a story; once again linking science and narrative.
Many real life crimes, such as the World’s End Murders, have had to wait for forensic science to develop the scientific techniques required to solve the mysteries and catch the perpetrator. Mr Rankin commented that this is possible because, in such cases, the police keep the evidence from the crime scene. However, according to Professor Black, problems can arise because forensic science is geared towards the ensuing courtroom process and not the initial police investigation. Indeed, increased public knowledge of forensics, gained from the media and literature, can also cause issues with the courtroom jury. Scientists must attend court in their capacity as expert witnesses and explain their science in a way that is comprehensible. This explanation and terminology may not match that used by writers and, thus, the public may be swayed by what is written in fiction. Scientists, therefore, have a responsibility to make the science easily understandable in the court for the jury.
Professor Black asked Mr Rankin whether he considered writers to have a similar responsibility to write good, realistic science. He replied that it is a personal choice for each individual writer. Some would consider literature to be all about the narrative, continuing a tradition of storytelling and not letting facts get in the way. For example, many things that would actually happen in a murder enquiry would slow down the action in a book and it “can be a bit of a pain for realism to get in the way, especially when only a handful of people reading the book would actually know that the process wasn’t exact”. When writing his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, Mr Rankin decided to consult Lothian and Borders Police to find out more about their processes. Unfortunately, this somewhat backfired on him as, when meeting detectives from Leith Police Station, he described the plot of his novel and this proved to be similar to a recent missing person case in Edinburgh. He was interviewed as a potential suspect in the case and this deterred him from consulting the police for some time.
Mr Rankin also described the problems with writing longevity into a story; including current political or societal details within a text can cause it to date quickly. However, this can also happen with including details relating to technology; for example, many of the early Rebus stories describe him stopping at a telephone box or receiving a fax. Furthermore, writing about a character of an already advanced age can cause issues in subsequent books, necessitating them to retire or move on to different employment roles.
Professor Black asked whether, when writing a story, Mr Rankin avoids similarities with key cases reported in the media, or if such cases are useful to writers. Mr Rankin suggested that he might think about what a particular real life case says about us as a culture or country and he might then explore that as a possible plot theme for a book; for example, war crimes suspects, asylum seekers and cannibalism cases. Books are often trying to say something about humanity and our time, questioning why things happen and how we feel about them. But real cases can be problematic. For example, Mr Rankin has considered using the Lockerbie air disaster and the many interesting stories about the people involved and those who dealt with the aftermath, but hasn’t as yet felt able to do this. Moreover, the idea of writing a story from the point of view of a paedophile is something he also feels unable to tackle, not wanting to “go inside the head of such a person”.
Professor Black pointed out that, as a forensic scientist, she sometimes does not have this choice. Whilst many people consider science to be about laboratory work, the reality of the approach to identifying paedophiles is very anatomically based. Since the 16th Century, science has known that the vein patterns on the hands and the pattern of skin on the knuckles is different on different people. In paedophile cases, the perpetrators often film themselves carrying out the crime and, therefore, vein patterns on the body shown within these films can identify them. Professor Black commented that the research they undertake using these films to build up a database of evidence to support their scientific hypotheses regarding vein patterns has, over time, led to improved courtroom experiences; not only does a change of plea when faced with this kind of evidence save the court money, it also protects children from having to give evidence. Thus, she does understand why someone wouldn’t want to go into the mind of a paedophile, but considers that “science has no choice”. Mr Rankin commented that crime is an old story and goes back to the time of myth, legend and fairy tales, even Red Riding Hood is a classic crime story. At its heart and throughout history, crime fiction is asking the question “why do human beings keep doing bad things to each other?”
Mr Rankin asked Professor Black about experiences as an expert witness in a courtroom, particularly when faced with very experienced and determined defence lawyers. Professor Black stated that it can be extremely frustrating. “You can have all the evidence and present it well, but the lawyer can be a great actor and skilled at persuading the jury”. Furthermore, a day in court can be a very long process. The first part of the day is much easier and includes presenting evidence to a prosecuting lawyer who is on your side. The defence lawyer at the end of the day is more problematic and it can be difficult to keep a cool, detached, unbiased and scientific approach throughout the day. “You can’t take it personally; it’s their job. There is a lot of showmanship, but they have mostly also done their research and are very skilled people. It can be very challenging for the scientists. The courtroom is a difficult place for everyone”.
Mr Rankin asked whether Professor Black thought any writers of fiction portray good, factual science. Kathy Reichs is a forensic anthropologist and, as such, her writing is generally good and not sensationalised too much. Professor Black has also spent time with other crime writers, including Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Jeffery Deaver, and has been impressed by the care and attention they take with science. Indeed, Stuart MacBride has visited the dissecting room at Dundee, which is named after him; and whilst he was initially nervous, this soon slipped away upon seeing the marvellous workings of the human body.
“For him, it was about wanting to know what aspects of the human body felt like, for example cartilage, dead skin and muscle. Someone who wants to put themselves into that position to be able to write about it is doing good research”. Professor Black commented, “If the science is going to be in there, it should be reported well. I would rather spend the time with crime writers explaining something, than see something incorrect or unbelievable go into a book. They have a duty of care to the reader”.
Finally, Mr Rankin and Professor Black discussed the change in culture relating to the dissection of human bodies over the last decades. In the 1980s, forensic scientists could take any samples they liked from bodies, for research purposes; this is no longer allowed. Things change rapidly and it is important to change with the time and culture; otherwise you can come into conflict with it. Mr Rankin commented that this has been an issue for his ‘dinosauresque’ Rebus character!
Is any of Rebus’s personality autobiographical?
Mr Rankin and Rebus come from the same place in Scotland, went to the same school, like the same music and drink in the same bar. Otherwise, that’s where the similarities end. Although, Mr Rankin asked “where do characters come from if they’re not part of you?” Rebus can say things that he can’t, he’s more of a rebel and risk taker than Mr Rankin and he speaks back to authority and has excellent comeback lines!
Do you think people are inherently good or bad?
Professor Black commented that she is optimistic and likes to believe there is good in people. She has never met anyone she would consider inherently evil and suggests you become a product of your background, circumstances and attitudes – everyone is unique in this respect. “If you lose hope in the fact there has to be something worth finding in everyone, then you lose hope in humanity”. Mr Rankin described having contributed to a television series discussing good and evil. It asked whether evil means the same thing throughout time and cultures and whether evil comes from nature or nurture. At the end of the process, he couldn’t point to a person and say they were evil, but could point to an action and say that what they did was evil. What is also interesting is why, when we have the opportunity and capacity to do so, more people don’t do bad things. We are all capable of good and evil and what stops us doing it is what is most fascinating.
From time to time we see facial reconstructions of long dead bodies. How do you ascertain weight and aspects that can’t be determined from the bones?
Under the face is the skull and the face is reconstructed from the apertures upon this. The skull dictates how you look. There is an inherent face, but what we cannot determine from this is weight, skin colour etc. When faces are reconstructed, they are done so to a middle size, have no skin colour and are given a generic hairstyle. A facial reconstruction is simply trying to jog someone’s memory.
Are there really some dubious expert witnesses as portrayed in crime novels? What is your opinion of the quality of witnesses we get in this country?
In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States wrote a report on the state of forensic science. It suggested that it was “the shoddiest science imaginable”. Part of the reason for that is there is very little funding for forensic science, meaning much of it is not fit for purpose. Experts need to be very good at statistics, mathematics and logical reasoning. Some experts are extremely good and some incredibly bad, but they are dealing with a set of tools that are not fit for purpose. As criminal trials can be very long and boring, they also have to be careful that the forensic science doesn’t become the showcase in court. There is a move towards accrediting experts and making them sit exams to prove they are fit for court. The UK, however, and particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland, are viewed as being leaders of the world in forensic science.
There have been improvements in identification through fingerprints, DNA, facial reconstruction, etc. What is the main deficiency in forensic science at the moment?
The biggest deficiency is in understanding mathematics and statistics; for example, probability ratios and likelihood. We have not yet got big enough databases to test methods. We have been using fingerprints as evidence for hundreds of years and their validity used to go without question. However, due to the Shirley McKie case in Scotland, fingerprint evidence has now been downgraded from ‘evidence of fact’ to ‘evidence of opinion’. There is no golden bullet that will solve all crimes without question. This means we need to use a multiple approach in terms of science. Currently, there is huge funding available for the Biometrics industry. As a country, we are scared about our security and the highest rising crime is identity fraud. Thus, we are starting to use our biometrics as a currency. Professor Black stressed that people should be very careful about using their fingerprint to gain access to an electronic device; you are putting your identity ‘out there’. “You don’t know where that information is being stored. If you give up part of your biometric data, you are giving up a part of your identity. You can’t get a new fingerprint. We are perhaps too blasé about protecting our identity”.