Archive for the Forensics category
by Jonathan on September 7th, 2011
Hi. Yes, I’ve been neglecting this space – in truth, between work and writing and living in NYC, I’m stretched pretty thin. I’ve been working on my next book, Monster Park, a thriller set in winter in the low mountains of Colorado, and I’m the newest member of Murderati, the group blog for a fistful (if you can fit fourteen of them in your fist) of prominent crime fiction authors. Plus, you know, earthquakes and hurricanes and whatnot.
Today, I’m discussing a few cult films in the crime genre, kicking off with Scarface, alighting briefly on Blade Runner, then focusing on Fight Club and Leon: The Professional, two films that have a cult following among Millennials. Plus a generous slathering of my thoughts on internet -p-o-r-n- and tumblrs. (I’m not trying to emphasize that word, I’m trying to hide it from spammers, doubtless futilely.) Speaking of tumblrs, have you seen mine lately? It’s awesome! Although sometimes NSFW – usually just a sprinkling of nudity, but occasionally something “worse”.
So, check out today’s Murderati post, and if the spirit moves you, say something in the comments! “Hallelujah!” would be good.
Other topics I’ve blogged about there:
by Jonathan on May 1st, 2011
At mystery or thriller festivals, I’m often asked about the importance of accuracy in the genre. I think authors should take whatever liberties they need to tell their stories – after all, these are thrillers, not forensic textbooks. The important thing is that the world of the story must have an internally cohesive reality – Harry Potter is pure fantasy, but feels real because of the consistency and integrity of the characters and universe that JK Rowling has created.
That said, I personally can’t let myself distort the science – I want a character who is shot, strangled or impaled to appear and behave as they would if it had happened in real life. I create situations that are more extreme than those we usually see in our work as medical examiners, and present those scenarios as realistically as possible; I want the reader to mutter, “Whoa!”, both because the situation is extreme, and because it is also palpably real.
While I like to crank up the intensity in my novels, I need everything I use to exist in the real world. A number of elements in A Hard Death may seem over the top, but they’re all based on real world events, from Maggie Craine’s back story to the way the drug trade is depicted. A reader emailed me the other day asking me about the drugs and money in the book, wondering if I was overstating things. But turn on your TV and it’s all there – drugs shipped in homemade submarines, drugs jammed into shark carcasses, drug packets stuffed into live snakes. And it’s all because the money is just incredible.
How incredible? Well, have a look at this collection of photographs from 2007, taken when Mexican government forces, in a joint operation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency, raided the home of a methamphetamine king pin. A private zoo with seven lions, panthers and tigers, an armory replete with gold and gem-encrusted firearms, and cash jammed into cupboards, walls, suitcases and strongboxes: in all $205 million in one hundred US dollar bills…
(Music: Evil Nine, “All the Cash”)
by Jonathan on December 1st, 2009
Last week, I was on Moncrieff! – not literally on Sean Moncrieff, but on his popular afternoon show on Irish talk radio.
Sean Moncrieff: The work of a pathologist is often characterized as somewhat ‘glamorous’, yet this is a person who, on a daily basis, cuts up dead bodies – who would do such a thing? Well, Jonathan Hayes, for one. He’s a novelist and has worked as a forensic pathologist in the U.S. for over twenty years…
by Jonathan on November 23rd, 2009
I have a long article about blood in the UK newspaper the Independent today. It’s a bit of a curious thing, hopscotching around the place, covering how I became a forensic pathologist, the Cuban white and black magic I saw in Miami, realism in crime fiction, the meaning of blood in different religions, blood spatter forensics and vampire movies.
Since I don’t know how they’ve illustrated it, I thought I’d add a few photos to support the story. I gathered these from around the internet when I first started working on them, and have lost the links – if they’re yours, please let me know so I can credit you.
I’ve tried to do it in sequence to correspond to the story. Obviously, if you’re squeamish, you probably shouldn’t look at this post. Although, really, if you’re squeamish, what are you doing on my blog?
In Israel, a ZAKA operative wipes blood after an attack:
A Durer portrait of Christ suffering:
A Cranach crucifixion – Christ’s blood anointing the faithful…
A devout Filipino being crucified on Good Friday:
Shi’a Muslims marking the Day of Ashura; others sacrifice by donating blood.
An nganga, a cauldron filled with mystically significant metal, wood and leather objects, and blood, and, here, a human skull. For practitioners of palo mayombe, the dark form of the syncretic Caribbean religion of santeria, the nganga is the ritual equivalent of an altar.
Technicians clean up an nganga discovered in New York City, ritual markings on the wall. In Miami, when we encountered santeria or brujeria (palo) artefacts, the cops would scoff at them, but most would refuse to touch them.
by Jonathan on November 1st, 2009
One of the fun things I did this spring/early summer was lecture at the 46th International Meeting of Francophone Legal Medicine. I was invited over by Professor Didier Gosset, the Chief Medical Examiner in Lille, in Northern France.
Didier and his team, including Professor Valéry Hedouin, and Dr. Anne Bécart, forensic odontologist, took great care of me. They put me up at the beautiful Hospice Gantois, an exquisite hotel built in the 1400′s as a hospital. The building has been renovated in an elegantly modern way (I’m a sucker for the combination of clean modern design and old spaces; one of my favourite hotels, the Wheatleigh, near Lenox, Massachusetts, where Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown did a beautiful job renovating a faux Italian palazzo in the Berkshires – I completely stole their bathroom design ideas for my loft in NYC).
My room had a view out over a small park that reminded me of the courtyard gardens in Ico, the brilliant videogame created by Fumito Ueda, about which more here; Ueda is one of the inspirations for Jun Saito, one of Jenner’s closest friends.
The conference was a fascinating glimpse into the differences – and similarities – between the way the French practice forensic pathology, and the way we do it in New York. I spoke for two hours on gunshot wounds; I lectured in French, which was fun for me and doubtless arduous for the audience. Still, we all survived, probably because my lectures are so heavily illustrated – I showed more than 300 images.
They didn’t guillotine me afterwards, so overall I think it went fairly well. After I’d lectured, I relaxed a little – I got to catch up with old acquaintances and make new friends. We had a great dinner at l’Huitriere, a superb Art Deco Michelin-starred seafood restaurant tucked behind a traditional fish merchant’s.
It was a wonderful experience – I even got a Bronze Medal from the city of Lille for my participation. I wasn’t in Lille long enough to really get to know it, but it’s a lovely city, with handsome old rowhouses with Flemish-style red and brown brick, and an elegant city center; I’ll certainly be back. As a returning Bronze Medalist, I have no doubt that they’ll let me ride the buses and subways for free.
by Jonathan on November 3rd, 2008
Just popping my head in to mention that I’m currently ignoring my own blog (and very effectively too, I might add) so that I can guest-blog on Lee Lofland’s excellent cops and forensics site for writers and mystery fans, the Graveyard Shift. I’m going to be doing this on the first Monday of every month, until Lee gets sick of me.
My first blog entry is up today; it’s a gloss on the forensic value of tattoos.
by Jonathan on October 16th, 2008
Well, I’m back from Bouchercon, the annual crime fiction festival, this year held in Baltimore and run by Ruth Jordan of Crimespree Magazine and Judy Bobalik. It was my first Bouchercon, but I felt not so much “virginal” as (whatever the single word adjective you’d use to describe someone arriving in the Big City for the first time, and feeling a bit disoriented and lost amid all the bustling crowds). It was a bit bewildering, but there was a tremendous sense of community, and everyone was super nice – like, Midwestern-level nice.
I arrived Thursday afternoon, and was ecstatic to get there, at least in part because I drove down with Alafair Burke; Alafair is, to be frank, certifiably psychotic at the wheel, her need for speed almost carnal in its urgency. The combination of high speed daredevil manoeuvres (at one point, she drove under a semi just so she could slam us up the ramp of an empty car transporter trailer, shooting us up about 20 feet high, hurtling through the air to land squarely 8 inches in front of the black Tahoe that had irritated Alafair by dawdling in front of her for a good two minutes). (Seriously.)
I checked into the Sheraton, which was actually not bad for a chain hotel – the common areas had all the elegance of a feed auction in Topeka <tm a joke I made at the time>, but the rooms were pleasantly modern in their style, and the bathrooms were quite handsome. Unusually inoffensive for a chain hotel! Of course, the widescreen LG TV was set to Standard Definition, with the images all stretched to fill out the screen space, something I HATE! If your signal isn’t in widescreen, set your set to Academy Ratio, darnit all to heck!
I checked in with my publicist, Harper’s wonderful Heather Drucker, then milled about a bit with Alafair, but I was exhausted, so when she and her coterie headed out to dinner, I disappeared to bed. Roomservice steak, serviceable, some awful TV vampire movie with that blonde sweater girl from that Star Trek spin-off. Jeri Ryan? Something like that.
Friday morning at the crack of dawn (8:30AM), I joined authors John French (Baltimore PD Crime Lab), ex-cop Lee Lofland, all around force for good Cody McFadyen and Gwen Freeman, pinch-hitting for Sheila Lowe (both Sheila, a hand-writing analyst and forensic artist Brenda Robertson Stewart were felled by food poisoning, an epidemic of which shot through the assembled ranks like melted butter through a loosely-packed Jumbo Bag of popcorn) to discuss the way forensics in movies, TV and books relates to the real world. (In brief, many forensics folks hate how fake it is, I personally like it because it often captures the spirit of what we do, and it makes us look absurdly glamorous – and hey, what’s not to like about that? I’ve written about it a few times, most recently in a blog for the Baltimore Sun, and previously for New York magazine. And I actually believe what I said!)
Despite the obscene hour, a good time was probably had by everybody – it was too early to make rigorous judgements like that. It was good to finally meet Lee, whose blog, the Graveyard Shift, is a fantastic resource for all things police and forensics-related; Lee’s book on police procedure is aimed at writers, and is a goldmine for, uh, writers. I’m going to try to persuade him to let me make the occasional guest post on the Graveyard Shift.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I saw a bit of various assembled friends; people seemed to accumulate in the lobby as overflow from the overcrowded restaurant, and then move on to other places. I saw quite a lot of Tasha Alexander (that blonde hair is like a flag), J.D. Rhoades, Jonny Santlofer, Megan Abbott, Dan Conaway, Joe Konrath, Meredith Cole, Michael Koryta, Sean Chercover, Mark Billingham, Michelle Gagnon, Sarah Weinman, Tim Maleeny – y’know, I’m going to stop now. It’s going to KILL me to add in the URL’s to everyone I’ve just listed! I saw lots of great writers, in short.
There’s a really interesting (at least to a newbie) and palpable hierarchy to the event. Well, not so much a hierarchy as a finely-pitched sense of celebrity, an awareness of superstar success. Lee Child just has to lean against a door frame in his elegantly lanky way to trigger waves of psychic attraction; he becomes more apparent simply by standing still. And Harlan Coben strides affably through the halls, his smooth dome poking above the heads of the crowd like an iceberg in a flat sea; even if you didn’t know what they looked like, it’d be easy to spot the million dollar-plus advance crowd.
That probably sounds bitchy, but I really don’t mean it that way – one of the hallmarks of Bouchercon (based on my huge experience of the thing) is the friendliness of the participants, and the willingness of authors to stop and chat. I never once saw either Child or Coben not talking and smiling with fans or with other writers. It felt good to belong to that brother/sisterhood (to the extent that a novice author can consider her- or himself as belonging to that community).
In the evening, I went to the Harper dinner at Cinghale, a slightly swank modern Italian restaurant. I got to meet (breathlessly!) the amazingly cool Val McDermid ; I cornered her and told her about how worried I’d been when some critics found Precious Blood gory, and then how relieved I’d been when I read The Mermaids Singing, her first – Crumbs! And people said my book was gory! She was supernice, in line with the conference’s Nice Mega-authors theme. As was Laura Lippman, who I’m sure I terrified with my fanboy ravings about The Wire, created by her husband David Simon and Ed Burns.
I had a fun table, including Billingham, and it was great to finally dine with the notorious Otto Penzler, New York City icon and King of the Mysterious Bookshop. He would’ve been an entertaining enough companion on the mystery chatter front alone, but that he should be an informed and opinionated foodie was just gravy…
After dinner, hmmm… I took a taxi back to the hotel with Otto, Tasha, Andy Gross and Jonny Santlofer, then we milled around for a while before making our way to the Reacher’s Creatures party for Lee Child. I was fading fast by that time, and went home to crash not long after 1AM.
Now I’m fatigued from all that writin’ and linkin’; I’ll finish the rest of Bouchercon tomorrow…
by Jonathan on August 21st, 2008
Have a look at this video:
No, seriously, I mean it. Watch this video before going on.
I came across it on Gizmodo , the tech/gadget-obsessed website. The woman talking in the interview is acting for the camera. Or, rather, some of her is: you’re hearing her voice, and you’re seeing her body and her hair, but her face is computer-generated. The video was rendered using special software; she posed for 35 facial shots before a pair of digital cameras, and then her expressions for the entire interview were rendered by a computer.
Of course, on Gizmodo, all of the readers insisted that they could tell that her face was synthetic, but that’s largely because the title for the item was something like “Emily Is Computer-generated – Can You Tell?” The fact is, it’s a pretty astonishing likeness. The animation is smooth, the features moving in a coordinated, natural way, the facial expressions elegant and real.
In computer graphics, there’s a notion referred to as the “Uncanny Valley”. You can play a video game with hokey 8-bit graphics, a Super Mario Brothers game, for example. The characters are pixelated little creatures, but even so, you can relate to them as human.
However, as the graphics improve, and as characters look more and more human, something strange happens. When we see a computer graphic image of a person that is very realistic, but not quite accurate, it has a slightly eerie effect, as alienating as a life-like waxwork. We resist the emotional connection, and feel slightly disturbed. The “Uncanny Valley” is that vaguely upsetting distance between something real and its very realistic copy.
The video was made by a company that specializes in generating life-like faces for computer graphic characters in movies and videogames, but the technology is very impressive, and will only get better. We’ve all seen video clips or TV commercials in which dead actors or musicians are composited into present day situations, but one has to wonder what the implications of this new software are. It would obviously be easy to turn a video of a man’s retirement speech into a confession of murder. It’s only a question of time before faked videos will show up – you’ve probably seen doctored pornographic images of celebrities having sex, some of which look impressively real. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as these videos begin to proliferate.
In forensics, the switch over to digital photography has been a challenge because of the liability of digital files to tampering. For example, when a dead person is found with severe facial injuries, a medical examiner friend uses Photoshop to conceal the wounds to produce a “cleaned-up” photograph of the victim to show the family for identification. Obviously, viewing images of a severely injured son or husband is devastating, and what my friend does is genuinely kind to the family.
However, in demonstrating how easy it is to add and to subtract wounds, she’s risking compromising the integrity of her evidence (and an identification is indeed part of the evidence on the case). How do we know, the defense attorney will say, that she didn’t Photoshop in this gunshot wound of the chest here?
Sure, that’s pretty over the top, and she can forestall that by keeping the original and by making it clear in the record that she has retouched the photo for identification purposes, but I suspect it’s only a question of time before we see that sort of defense argument. In NYC, where we have only this year moved up to digital, we have a digital watermarking system that will flag any photograph where the image has been altered, even if it’s something so trivial as rotating the image from the horizontal to the vertical. In truth, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but if it helps us to defend the integrity of our work, I’m all for it.
One of the things I like about forensic work is its realness. I examine the victim, I document the injuries, I open the body and explore the wound pathways – the definition of “autopsy” is “seeing with one’s own eyes”. If I look at a body before me, I can be confident in my analysis and conclusions – there’s no Uncanny Valley in Forensic Pathology.
At least not yet: there is a growing fascination with the “Virtual Autopsy” – an examination done exclusively through imaging technology like MRI’s. I’ve seen enough errors made in diagnoses from CT and MRI scans that I’m very wary of that technology – call me old-fashioned, but I’ve got every intention of remaining autoptic…