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Should you be reading A HARD DEATH, and find that you have questions, don't hesitate to pipe up; I'll answer them as soon as I can, and as best I can.
Great to find you on here! I really enjoyed Precious Blood and Hard Death is next on my reading list. Can I ask, how much of your writing is based on your own experience? Also, how much have forensics changed since you started your career?
Thanks in advance!
Oops! Bel Arbre - if I make it up myself, I should at least get the damn name right! Particularly when I'm sitting writing this in my flat in Paris.
Yikes! I just managed to accidentally delete this post - thank God for browser caches!
Glad to hear you enjoyed PRECIOUS BLOOD!
One of the problems of my profession is that it is intellectually and emotionally demanding work, but there is little outlet to talk about the things we see. I take the confidentiality aspect very seriously - the murder victims I see are real people, with real families, and I'm very wary of exploiting them, or hurting relatives.
That said, it's hard not to talk about my experiences, because they're so intense. Writing fiction lets me discuss some of the things I've seen and done in a sensitive and ethical way. I don't use real cases, but I take the experience of working on thousands of forensic cases and mine it for detail and realism. The stories of PRECIOUS BLOOD and A HARD DEATH are pretty extreme, but they're grounded in real forensic work.
There was a lot that was real in PRECIOUS BLOOD, particularly the 9/11 recovery work. This was a very tricky thing to discuss, because it's SUCH an emotional thing among my colleagues in the police departments and fire department in New York City, and still very politically charged throughout the city. I had to tread very lightly; as it is, some people felt I said too much, others that I didn't go far enough. It was enough of a tightrope walk that, for A HARD DEATH, I decided to set the book in an imaginary county in Florida, so that no one could be offended.
The fictional Douglas County in A HARD DEATH is a thinly veiled version of Collier County, in southwest Florida. When I was a fellow, training in forensic pathology in Miami, I used to moonlight as the Collier Medical Examiner, and am still very close with the county's current chief M.E. - my best friend from my training program. Collier was a fascinating experience, because the work tended to divide into three zones. Naples, the county capital, is a rather charming old Florida city, and a playground of the wealthy, and, because of its beaches and its position on the edge of the Everglades, a popular tourist destination. But drive through twenty or thirty miles of farmland north and you'll come to Immokalee, a poor town filled with largely non English-speaking migrant farm workers living in abject poverty; the county as a whole is very peaceful and safe, but Immokalee had more than its share of violent crime, usually related to drink and drugs. And, of course, poverty.
So, yes, Douglas County in A HARD DEATH, with its bizarre mix of super-wealthy and super-poor, is inspired by Collier County; Port Fontaine by Naples, and Belle Arbre by Immokalee.
As far as forensics go, the pathology hasn't changed that much, but DNA represents a huge change in what scientists can bring to crime investigation. In my office, we work with an eye to the future; for example, when we investigate a case of sudden death without an apparent cause, we'll keep small samples of tissue that we can return to down the road as molecular testing becomes more efficient, and we can check for things like genetic causes of sudden heart failure.
The DNA technology has become amazing; one of my early cases involved a man who was serially sexually assaulting and strangling women. Doing the autopsy of a little girl he'd murdered in 1992 or so, I found a single pubic hair on the outside of her panties, documented it and retained it. At the time, there was relatively little we could do with a single hair, particularly when we had no suspect. Fast forward 15 years, a suspect was arrested; there was clear evidence implicating him to another three killings, but nothing non-circumstantial to connect him to the little girl. But by then, mitochondrial DNA testing had improved to the extent that we were able to get a match from the suspect to that single pubic hair just as we were going to trial; he was found guilty on all four counts of murder.
The NYC District Attorney's office is also very forward-looking. My friends in the sex crimes squad there have been very aggressive: in cases of a sexual assault where there's DNA evidence but an unknown rapist, they go before the judge and get an arrest warrant for the John Doe that DNA came from. My understanding is that, while there's a statute of limitations beyond which you can't prosecute someone for rape, once the warrant is open, the case is valid until the case has finished its journey through the legal system. As our database expands, we're seeing increasing numbers of "cold hits", where DNA from a defendant in a rape is compared not just to the DNA taken from his victim, but to all the DNA on record, and found to match other crimes.
When I first started, Forensic Biology had one floor of our decrepit six story building (honestly described in A HARD DEATH, although the interior has been renovated and is actually quite nice). Today, DNA has a shiny new 17 story steel and glass building that towers over our shabby pile...
Thanks for the question - sorry if I gassed on a bit long!
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