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  • Murder and the Making of English CSI by Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton
  • Angus McLaren
Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton. Murder and the Making of English CSI. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 248 pp. Ill. $24.95 (978-1-4214-2040-0).

Historians have produced a number of important works on specialized aspects of forensic medicine such as finger printing and DNA analysis. Burney and Pemberton have seen the need for a broader account of the evolving nature of the concepts and practices of forensic investigation. Although they insist that they are not telling a linear story and highlight the interplay between different sets of practices, the book's central message is that in English murder cases between the 1890s and the 1950s a forensics of things ultimately eclipsed a forensics of bodies. What does that mean? Hans Gross, an Austrian criminal magistrate whose 1893 forensic textbook was translated into English in 1906, asserted that witnesses could lie or be mistaken, but material evidence was factual, incorruptible, and disinterested. Accordingly the pathologist's duty was to isolate the crime scene and be especially careful in collecting trace evidence such as hair fibers and blood splatters. In France Edmond Locard similarly stressed the importance of the apparently trivial; the skilled investigator could find in the microscopic debris left on a suspect's clothing an unimpeachable record of his or her movements and encounters. The laboratory and the microscope symbolized this new approach to forensics, as did the experts whom the continental states recognized and employed. England differed in continuing to rely on nonexperts well into the twentieth century. [End Page 680]

Providing in this slim study an account of how the notion of the English crime scene investigation emerged, Burney and Pemberton focus on the relationship between "bodies and traces in space," an elusive phrase that the publisher wisely dissuaded them from using as the book's title. They hang their discussion of changes in forensic pathology on two famous murder cases and the two lead pathologists involved. In 1924 when Emily Kay's butchered body parts were discovered, the authorities sought the assistance of Bernard Spilsbury. The newspapers portrayed him as a celebrity pathologist endowed with amazing powers of detection, a real-life Sherlock Holmes. In playing the role of the mortuary and courtroom divo, he was, argue our authors, very much of the old-school tradition. The tabloids lauded him as a crime scene virtuoso, the police as his worker drones, and rival pathologists as nonentities. But Burney and Pemberton go on to use the Kay murder to demonstrate that Spilsbury evolved. Traditionally the pathologist awaited the victim's body in the mortuary; his examination began at the postmortem rather than at the crime scene. Because of Kay's dismemberment, Spilsbury had to work at the crime scene, revealing himself to be on occasion less the showman and more the modern hands-on investigator.

The age of the Spilsbury, the lone pathologist, had ended long before his suicide in 1947. One might say that the crime scene team replaced the prima donna. Burney and Pemberton's tendency to shy away from making such clear claims does not always make for easy reading: "However it was not so much a banishment of pathology from the landscape of forensic investigation as pathology's readjustment to a new dispensation, involving practitioners whose working lives were conducted in proximity to, and in direct relation with, the idea of a disciplined trace-laden crime scene, and who were willing to seek a niche for themselves within a matrix of investigation demanded by such spaces" (p. 136). Nevertheless Burney and Pemberton convincingly argue that Francis Camps, who in 1953 investigated the famous Rillington Place serial killings of John Christie, represented a new generation of pathologists self-consciously differing from Spilsbury and his values. Whereas Spilsbury had usually maintained a distance from the physical crime scene, Camps stressed the routine and rigor of teamwork and the need to integrate science and medicine. If the trace evidence collected—including hair, fiber, soil, and flora—was to be usefully employed, it demanded the coordinated efforts of detectives, pathologists, and lab scientists.

This informative study will...


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pp. 680-681
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