books

Written in Blood – Mike Silverman: AF Reading Challenge #4

The eighth book I read in 2017 was Written in Blood by Mike Silverman. For my Reading Challenge, this completes #2 A non-fiction book about science.

What’s it About?

Written in Blood is written by one of the UK’s leading Forensic Scientists, Mike Silverman, and looks at the development of forensics over the last 35 years, specifically focusing on the UK industry but also commenting on their influence on an international scale.

He looks at everything a number of forensic techniques including fingerprinting, blood typing, DNA analysis, fibre analysis and comparison and blood splatter analysis. He also touches on crime scene management and how evidence is collected. This is all interspersed with anecdotes and examples of cases he and his colleagues have worked on where forensic evidence has both helped and hindered cases.

Silverman is clearly a very knowledgeable guy and reading about his career progression, from being a student to working in management roles within the industry, was not only inspiring but provides a great context for understanding the evolution of forensics techniques.

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Why This Book?

I’ve always interested in forensic science; I read a lot of crime fiction, I started uni studying Biomedical Science and studied DNA and genetics in detail, and for my A Level Biology my favourite module was about the basics of forensic science.

After I changed course to Business Management I wanted to make sure I didn’t loose my interest in and knowledge of biology so I started to read a lot of non-fiction. This included some nature books, some psychology and neuroscience books, some about physiology, some about genetics, and some about forensic science particularly in the context of criminal investigations.

What Did I Think?

I decided to read Written in Blood after really enjoying Val McDermid’s Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime. While there are some similarities between these 2 books and there is obviously a small overlap in the information presented, they are definitely unique enough that I thoroughly enjoyed both.

While Forensics gives a basic overview of all forensic techniques used to solve a crime dating back to the Victorian Era and before, Written in Blood begins at the start of Silverman’s career when fingerprints were still kept on card files, there was no national computer database and even blood testing and profiling was pretty basic.

It also goes more into a lot more detail when talking about the science and specific DNA profiling techniques. While I really enjoyed this and found it easy to understand, it may still be a little unnecessarily detailed for some readers. I’m lucky enough that I’ve been able to try out PCR & DNA gel electrophoresis techniques in a lab myself back when I was a student, so I was already familiar with the techniques and processes used. For me it was  nice to be reminded of all the things I’d once studied and really interesting to learn a little more about the history and the continued development of DNA analysis techniques.

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Another way it differed was how it’s very UK-centric which I thoroughly enjoyed because it felt a lot more relevant. That said, he didn’t shy away from talking about forensics on an international level and the influence which developments made in the UK had on the rest of the world.

In a similar vein, rather than just focusing on forensic science, it looks at the forensic science industry as a whole explaining how it works, the increasing push towards privatisation and offering a fair critique on both it’s strengths and weaknesses. Towards the second half of the books the focus seems to shift a little more towards this discussion of politics and drama in the industry, rather than pure science, and it does get a little slower in places.

That said, I found the sections which discussed the mistakes which have been made in criminal investigations was fascinating. One which stood out in particular was the puzzling case of how one woman’s DNA was found at multiple crime scenes throughout Europe including burglaries, murders and even assault cases. The idea of a female serial killer / master criminal was fascinating to most until it was revealed that the DNA actually came from the swabs themselves, not the crime scenes. The DNA belonged to a woman who worked in the factory which manufactured them and DNA analysis techniques had become so advanced that even tiny trace amounts of DNA like this were causing contamination problems and hindering investigations.

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While it makes sense that problems like this were forced to arise at some point with the technical and scientific advancements happening so quickly over the last 30 or so years, it was something I’d never really thought about before. Therefore, this book bringing up issues like this and discussing how they were discovered, fixed and other potential issues which could arise in the future was so interesting!

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My Rating: 9/10

Books Read this Year: 8 / 100

Challenges Completed: 4 / 30

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