It's a crime! (Or a mystery…)

Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Body in the Library

Well I had to get there for this event as Minette Walters does not seem to make so many appearances these days and she's always good fun.  On stage to discuss how important it is for leading crime writers to keep up with the latest developments in forensic pathology were, with Walters, Ian Rankin and Anthony Busuttil.  Busuttil is a Professor of Forensic Medicine in Edinburgh.  The event was chaired by Peter Guttridge.

Kicking off, Busuttil described pathology, noting that it's not just about the dead but also the checking of organs, tissues etc. when the living undergo surgery, for example.  Pathologists are called out in the case of suspicious death and used to be the heads of the teams until about fifteen years ago when the role of Crime Scene Manager was created.  A wickedly funny Busuttil added that CSMs are trained in a village outside Durham, called Crook.  Busuttil added that pathologists have a warped sense of humour to remain buoyant, given all they see and he thinks crime fiction reflects this well.

Asked by Guttridge if Walters already knew all she'd just heard, she admitted she didn't and had now found someone else to harrass for information when doing her research.  "Buzz off" quipped Rankin.  The way Walters works is to amass as much knowledge as she can through reading and other research.  She even found at one time that she'd become addicted to reading forensic books.  Walters declared she has never met a pathologist who isn't funny.

As for Rankin, he started writing novels as a hobby so he did not do much research, but when he got to the stage of being a full time career writer he thought he'd better get his "facts as right as possible".  That was when he first made contact with Busuttil.  Rankin was keen to let everyone know just how hard our pathologists work: in addition to the calls out to suspicious deaths and the post mortems, Busuttil also teaches students at the university, for example.  Rankin thought that depiction on screen was not accurate, so he tried to ensure reality in his novels.  On their first meeting, Busuttil mistook Rankin for a Detective he was expecting and so he tried to show him some gory pictures.  But for Rankin, it's not about detail, it's about giving the readers a "taste" and allowing them to fill in the gaps.

Walters then told us how she had come across the "weirdest of things" in an autopsy room.  These she described as "extraordinary scented grilles", with scent occasionally puffed out into the room.  Her own forensic pathologist contact, one Alan Anscombe had explained to her "It gets very smelly in here".

Guttridge then prompted Busuttil to talk about the setting up of forensic medicine at the universities in Scotland.  When he had finished, Guttridge then questioned him on the fact that the late Bernard Spillsbury was sometimes criticised for going too far.  Busuttil replied that there are two aspects to consider: the first is that pathologists are trained to collect facts and the second is to make an interpretation of the facts.  He noted the impact of CSI, the TV series, where everyone seems to think anything is now possible and very quickly.  But in reality, there are still things that cannot be done and pathologists need to be strong enough to say "I'm sorry, but I do not know".

As Rankin commented that "CSI has affected and afflicted readers" a single balloon fell from the ceiling at the front of the stage.  When visible to those on stage, Rankin on quipping form said "That's a sign from Gordon Brown that all is well".  Back to CSI, he noted that students want to train because they see the crime scene role as glamorous,  but worried that there would be no jobs for them in the future.

Walters then recalled her last appearance at Cheltenham when she was on stage with James Patterson.  He arrived late and was in a bad mood, she said.  He admitted a couple of things including the fact that he did not know much about pathology.  She went away, had a think and reflected that she does care and wants the research to ensure she gets her facts right.  She avoids what can become complicated in her novels, e.g. arsenic poisoning – not much used these days and would the paths pick it up that easily? – and prefers knifing and strangulation.  Although she also noted that not every fact can be ascertained in the case of a knife, such as the exact brand.  She started listing a few, but Busuttil cut in with "It's usually a Prestige".

After Walters declared that she is "very interested in forensic psychiatry", Guttridge invited Busuttil to explain the difference between that and forensic psychology.  Essentially this is, in the case of psychology, the "normal" and working out where on the standard distribution curve a person lies.  For psychiatry, it's the abnormal, the malfunction of the brain, psychoses etc.

Rankin's novels have deaths that are "pretty straight forward" because "in reality, it tends to be".    The author enjoys the fact that Rebus is "old school" and would not have time for forensic path stuff; thus the writer knows more than his protag and can leave things out in the novels.  [Later in proceedings Guttridge asked that now that Rebus has retired, would Rankin need to know more?  He replied "If writing about a police officer, yes".  No clues about the future there then!]

Walters then enthused about a first novel she has just read, set in South Africa in 1952, called "A Beautiful Place to Die" by Malla Nunn, to be published in the UK by Macmillan in March 2009.  For her, the time and place led to an amazing discovery of a new author's ability to create suspense.

Later, she noted that DNA is only useful if there is a name and address attached.  With the government wanting all of us on a database in the future, she asked "How will the crime writer deal with it then?"  She has been a prison visitor for twenty years and not one of those she previously visited, who remains in correspondence with her, has kept the same name.  She told us that one of her correspondents has changed name about seven times and moved about five times.  The ordinary law-abiding citizens amongst us will be on a database,  but the criminals will be ahead of the game.

At this point Busuttil noted that criminals watch TV programmes, like CSI, too.  They learn how to cover cracks and create red herrings, which "makes life for the police very difficult".  He said that it's key to pick up DNA from the body and that's why the "monkey suits" are worn.  Employing the forensic path warped sense of humour, Busuttil then enlightened us on the monkey suits.  Apparently they come in one size only – extra large – and he has to "cut about three feet off the legs".  On a more serious note, he added that you can get DNA from a very small spot of blood.  Think of the fill of a lower case "o" as you type.

Rankin then added the realism factor again.  People can quickly become experts because of the net.  He leaves out what he considers to be the boring stuff in his novels, such as the fact that any investigation starts with a budget.  If a DNA test is lost, it may not be done again because of cost.  [Surely something to plunder for a plot twist?]

Busuttil quipped that police officers do not look too closely for bodies in Feb/March as they have little money left in the coffers.

Guttridge then asked the trio what they thought of the forensic path as the protag in a novel.  For Busuttil it was "so clean", "so neat" and "bossy" with the protag "not right" as he/she should be part of a team.  Walters would focus on the Scene of Crime Officers or the leader of the investigation as she feels these people are specialised and very highly trained in gathering very specific evidence.  Rankin agreed with Walters's comments, initially saying "Yeah.  Fine.  Do it." but adding that SOCOs make an interesting case.  He firmly believes that where TV looks for something different, another angle, so do authors.

Questions from the audience resulted in a discussion on Agatha Christie and how her novels could not be written now; whether the authors employed their alter-egos when writing or plundered their family and friends for characters – take your pick; what they felt of their TV versions of their books – Walters, with no series character was happy; Rankin does not watch, even with a cameo in one episode for a scene that did not exist in the relevant novel and neither did the character.

It was a great night.  There was also salacious gossip and a comment that could result in a legal case (outside chance).  You simply had to be there!  [And I will not repeat either here.]

My recommendation for next time?  Book it and turn up.  You can catch up on Saturday night's Strictly and The X Factor via the net.  There's nothing like a live author interview, with a "strictly" professional in attendance.

4 comments on “Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Body in the Library

  1. pierre l
    October 19, 2008

    Thank you for an excellent, informative and entertaining report.

  2. cfr
    October 19, 2008

    Thanks Pierre.

  3. Maxine
    October 19, 2008

    Great post, CrimeFic. Really loved reading it.

  4. Norm
    October 20, 2008

    Thanks cfr, your post reminded of the pathology and forensic dentistry lectures at university. Our lecturer had a great sense of humour and made the subject very interesting. I think he went on to become the chief pathologist to the UN War Crimes Tribunal on Yugoslavia. He must be retired now because he had been a junior on the Christie/Evans murder case at Rillington Place.

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This entry was posted on October 19, 2008 by in Author Events, Literary Festivals.