Saturday, 9 March 2013

Having a forensics expert at your side

by Gillian Hamer

During the course of my crime writing journey, several years ago I decided if I had a chance of coming across with any degree of knowledge where pathology and forensics were concerned, I would need a lot more information to hand than a fascination with the television's CSI!

So, I enrolled (and managed to pass) an Open University 'Forensic Science' course which, although was twelve months of hard work, has I believe been extremely worthwhile - although I still struggle with amino acids and the basics of DNA (consequently, my characters do too!)

However, there are occasions when beginners' knowledge is just not enough, and I need an expert on hand to assist. At those times, I have turned in the past to DP Lyle. And so has a fellow Triskele author, Catriona Troth, as she discusses here in an interview previously featured in Words with Jam magazine.

We are pleased to endorse Doug Lyle's services through Triskele Books.


This is a writers’ resource I have wanted to write about for a while now – something I have used myself and recommended to lots of fellow writers:  The Writer's Medical and Forensics Lab: .

Don’t dismiss this is a resource just for crime writers.  You have a character who falls ill or has an accident?  You want to make sure their symptoms/treatment/recovery time are realistic?  Or you want a character to be tactically out of action for a given period of time and need an illness or injury to match?  The doctor can help you.  He even manages to answer questions about medical practice in the past – great for historical novelists.  The only thing he will not do, for obvious legal and ethical reasons, is to answer questions about any real life medical or judicial case. 

Doug Lyle’s website typically receives anything up to twenty questions a week, all of which he answers (as I can personally vouch) both patiently and promptly.  For example, on the morning of the day I interviewed him, he had answered two questions from the website and spent two hours on the phone doing a manuscript consultation, helping a writer plot out an intricate medical thriller. 

As well as providing a Q&A service via his website, Doug now also produces The Writer’s Forensic Blog , based on questions he has received and also titbits from the latest developments in forensic.  But be warned – if you are into that kind of thing at all, it is a dangerously addictive read, so don’t start looking at it unless you have plenty of time to spare!

NOTE, if you want to use Doug’s service, he provides guidelines on his website as to how to set out your questions.  This is partly to ensure the questions are sensible and answerable.  (For example, it makes no sense to ask, ‘what will a corpse look like after three weeks?’.  It is a different matter to ask, ‘what will a fully clothed corpse look like after three weeks lying in damp woodland during mild British summer weather.’)  But other guidelines ensure that your email gets past his spam filters, and that he (and you) don’t get yourself in any legal difficulties.  It is really important that you follow his guidelines precisely if you want your question to be answered.  Otherwise you will get a polite, stock email asking for the additional information to be supplied. 

Doug Lyle trained (and still practices) as a cardiologist, but has written several novels himself, as well as non-fiction books on forensics.  I asked him how he came to be the writers’ advisor on forensics and medicine.   “As part of learning to write fiction,” he told me, “I attended many writing conferences across the country. If you’re a physician and go to a cocktail party people ask you about their cholesterol or their gallbladder and things like that. If you go to a writing conference, they ask you about poisons and gunshot wounds and what dead bodies looked like and all those grisly things that we fiction writers need to know! I began answering questions in the newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America , through a column called ‘The Doctor Is In’.  The website grew out the need to supply questions for the newsletter.”

Doug clearly enjoys his self-appointed role.  “I’ve always said that I learn as much from the questions as I hope the questioner learns from my answers. I’m continually amazed at the creative minds of fiction writers. They come up with some wild scenarios and often things that make you think and do research. Of course the goal is to supply them with the information they need to write a credible and publishable story.”

I asked him if he could think of any questions that were particularly intriguing, odd or otherwise memorable.  “I’ve gotten questions that range from how Goliath died to what a severed head would look like after floating in the North Atlantic for a month.  Other memorable questions revolved around whether a corpse would decay on Mars, what would happen if someone were shot in the head but just as the bullet entered were teleported to another locale, how does someone die when crucified, what was the earliest time that arsenic could be tested for in a corpse…”

Doug has written two books (as DouglasP Lyle) that would be a good starting point for anyone who wants to pick up ageneral understanding of forensics : FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS 

So what makes for good and bad forensics in books and television?  Often now, he says, the problem is that something that is exceedingly rare is made to seem simple and common.  “This is very common on all the CSI clones. They usually get the science right they just have a less than perfect perspective on what can really be done out here in the real world.”

The ‘CSI effect’ is a well known phenomenon that is having an impact on jurors, who are starting to expect that the sort of rarefied forensics they see on television should be applied to every case, and may fail to convict if such convincing scientific evidence is not forthcoming. 

As a writer himself, I wondered what advice he would give to a novice thriller writer when it came to learning about forensics.  Was it more important, say, to pick up a basic general knowledge of the subject, or to research the specifics of a particular story in depth?

“It can go either way,” he told me. “I think the best advice is always to remember that the story is not about the cool science. The story is about people and what happens to them. What their problems are and how they solve them. The scientific arena is merely a portion of the background chatter. So I would advise writers who want to use forensic science in their stories to gain a good overall understanding of the field and to dig a little deeper into the specific areas needed for their story. The danger of course is that after you do all this research you want to stick it in the novel and this can sometimes be problematic. Never stop the story to give a lecture on all the cool stuff you learned. Rather use the cool stuff to add stress to your characters.”

What injuries might reasonably be sustained by someone being struck in the back by a falling metal beam? How might this be complicated by smoke inhalation, burns etc? How long might the patient remain in hospital and what path would his recovery take?  (I am not seeking to kill or permanently disable my main character, but I want his injuries to be both serious and plausible!)

Doug’s very comprehensive answer

The beam could cause just about any type of injury. Some could be very minor and some could be severe and even deadly. It could be only a simple muscular contusion (bruise) or could be a contusion of the lung or a tear of the aorta or fractures of the ribs or a fracture in the spinal column.

·         A simple muscular contusion would be painful and would be treated with heat, pain meds, and physical therapy. He would be sore for several days or a week or so and then back to work.

·         A contused lung could cause shortness of breath, cough, and perhaps the coughing up of some blood. This could kill him but more likely would not. He would be watched in the hospital for a couple of days, recover at home for a few days to a week or so, and then would be OK.

·         A tear of the aorta (the main blood vessels from the heart to the body) would most likely lead to death in a few minutes to a few hours. He could survive this but would probably require a very extensive and dangerous operation and would be limited in his physical activities forever afterwards. This I don’t think you would want to use.

·         Several ribs along the back could fracture from the trauma. This would lead to a great deal of pain, particularly with breathing. He would be treated with oxygen, pain meds, and rest. He would be hospitalized for 3 or 4 days and then rest at home for 3 or 4 weeks.

·         If the beam fractured the spinal column it is likely he would be paralyzed so I don’t think this works for you either.

I would suggest a severe back contusion with or without the fracture of several ribs. This would keep him down for a while but eventually he would return to normal.

Smoke inhalation, if it doesn’t lead to death, can damage the lungs and the bronchial tubes (the breathing tubes or airways of the lungs). This can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing. Treatment is with steroids (Prednisone at 20 to 40 milligrams per day for 3 or 4 days), antibiotics for a week to10 days, pain meds, and time. He would be watched in the hospital for a few days then recover at home for a week or so. If this were combined with rib fractures, he would be in great pain for a week or so. Coughing with a rib fracture will literally bring tears to your eyes.

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