Doing Research For Historical Fiction---Forensic Science by Kenn Grimes

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the renowned “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes relied on three things to solve cases: his proficiency of observation; his vast knowledge of the forensic science that existed at that time; and his astounding use of bductive reasoning. Think what he could have done had he also had DNA testing, the use of ultraviolet light to detect blood stains, blood analyses and any of the other modern methods of forensic science! While writing Strangled in the Stacks (and, later, Trifecta of Murder), I had to do considerable research to uncover just what was, and wasn’t, known in the 1920s of forensic science.For instance: did DNA exist? Of course—there has always been DNA. But what did we know of it? While DNA was first isolated by the physician and biologist Friedrich Miescher in 1869, and first identified by James Watson and Francis Crick  in 1953, it wasn’t until 1987 that it was actually used to convict someone of a crime, the British murderer and rapist, Colin Pitchfork. Today DNA is the foremost method used to identify suspects and solve crimes. In fact, it can be used to solve cases many years old. Last year, for instance, Patrick McCabe was convicted of a rape and murder that took place thirty-nine years earlier, in 1977.

In my new book, Trifecta of Murder, a question that was raised was: was the same gun used to kill two of the victims? The answer was provided by the newest boarder at Mrs. Darling’s Boarding House, Pierre Longet, who recalled a trial he had attended in Massachusetts in 1903, possibly the first instance in which a bullet fired from a weapon was matched to the bullet that killed a man. In that case, a magnifying glass was used to determine that they were, by first looking at one bullet, then the other, and remembering if the grooves matched. The same method was used in my book. Had the story taken place a decade later, however, they would have had the benefit of the newly invented comparison microscope, which allowed the viewer to see both bullets at the same time.

And, of course, where there’s a murder there’s (almost) always blood.

In 1900, Karl Landsteiner identified three blood types (A, B, and C, which later became O). Two years later type AB was identified. During the year between these discoveries, in 1901, Paul Uhlenhuth developed a test that could differentiate human blood from animal blood. These discoveries all provided giant steps forward in criminal forensics, but were not fully utilized until the aforementioned DNA testing was available.

Last month I mentioned the word anachronism, (an error in chronology). While writing Trifecta of Murder, I became aware of an anachronism that I used in Strangled in the Stacks. To the first person who can point out to me what that was, I will send a free copy of  Trifecta of Murder. On the off chance there is more than one anachronism, if anyone points out another one that I’m not aware of, I will send the first person to do that a free copy also. I need to have your feedback no later than the 29th of this month so that I may reveal the anachronism(s) and winner(s)—if they consent to having their name published—in next month’s blog.