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Publisher's Summary

The dead talk - to the right listener. They can tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died, and, of course, who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help serve justice using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene, or the faintest of human traces. Forensics draws on interviews with some of these top-level professionals, groundbreaking research, and Val McDermid's own original interviews and firsthand experience on scene with top forensic scientists.

Along the way McDermid discovers how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine one's time of death; how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer; and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist were able to uncover the victims of a genocide. It's a journey that will take McDermid to war zones, fire scenes, and autopsy suites and bring her into contact with both extraordinary bravery and wickedness as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.

©2015 Val McDermid (P)2015 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

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Forensics in real life

CSI fans may or may not know that their favorite TV series is not always completely in sync with reality. If you enjoy CSI, but also know that you cannot sequence DNA in five seconds and if you would like to separate fact and fiction then this book is for you.

This 12 chapter book goes through different subfields of forensic science in real life (IRL). It begins at the crime scene. How is evidence gathered? What might destroy evidence? How do you prevent contamination of the scene? The book moves systematically through other fields of forensic science. Every chapter is brought to life by descriptions of actual crimes and the forensic work that ensued. To take a few examples, we are told the story about the infamous arsonist John Or. Or was a firefighter who started more than 2000 fires and then wrote a book about his deed, which despite being published as fiction contained enough details about his deeds and methods to result in his capture. We also meet Harold Shipman, who by poisoning more than 200 of his patients has gotten into the history books as one of the most prolific serial killers in history.

In subsequent chapters the author goes through, entomology (how organisms at the crime scene can provide evidence), pathology (examination of tissue), DNA, fingerprinting, toxicology, blood spatter, digital forensics etc. For each of these, we learn how forensics gather and analyze evidence, and each method is illustrated through actual crimes.

Given how many hours people (myself included) spend watching crime on TV, the material in this book is useful knowledge for anyone who wishes to be that person who points out factual errors when watching a movie with friends or family... Or perhaps you just want to know what happens backstage in a crime investigation. Either way, this book, though it wasn't an addictive page-turner, is a good choice for you.

32 of 34 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 09-02-16

Crime Seen

This book is a lot of fun. Easy to listen to, brilliantly narrated by a Scotswoman who can switch effortlessly and instantly between multiple other accents. As other reviewers have said, a lot of the material is stuff that you’ll have encountered in other books and on TV, but this book puts it nicely into a neatly packaged overview of all the different aspects of forensics, illuminated with lots of great crime stories which show how forensics contributed to solving the crime.

The first eleven chapters look at the different aspects and branches of forensics; In each case there was some stuff I knew and some other material that was new for me. For example, in ‘the Crime Scene’ I learnt that there usually isn’t just one, but several crime scenes. There’s the scene of the murder, the suspect’s vehicle, the suspect’s house etc.

In ‘Fingerprinting’ I learned that a fingerprint isn’t proof of guilt, it’s a subjective piece of evidence where you’re comparing the print with the print of a suspect and looking for similarities. The context is critical and many injustices have been perpetrated when juries have been convinced that a fingerprint is a guarantee of the suspect’s guilt.

And in ‘Forensic Psychology’ it was interesting to learn how a science that once had great credibility and kudos (psychological profiling predicts the characteristics of a perpetrator based on the evidence found at the crime scene) had a massive fall from grace after it misled a police force who hounded a suspect because he matched the profile, when the real perpetrator was overlooked despite fairly clear-cut physical evidence (a shoe-print). Psychological profiling is still part of the armoury of the investigating team, but is now used with much more caution.

The final chapter deals with the courtroom, where we are disappointed to see how all the painstaking work of dedicated scientists is subjected to the adversarial legal system, where two sides, the defence and the prosecution, are hell-bent on either clearing or convicting their client and aren’t interested in establishing the truth, only in winning the case. They will often go to great lengths to discredit and humiliate expert witnesses in pursuit of this goal.

It’s a good book – a proper ‘page-turner’. One of those where you really want to carry on listening but you have to stop to get on with some aspect of daily life.

43 of 47 people found this review helpful

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Very Interesting

At first I couldn't understand what the heck Sarah was saying - who was Judy, and what was she doing in every court room? - but then I got the hang of the brogue and loved every minute of the book. The content is fascinating, and so well presented.

23 of 25 people found this review helpful

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  • charles
  • Arlington, VA, United States
  • 07-11-15

Real Life Forensics Better Than NCIS and CSI!

If you could sum up Forensics in three words, what would they be?

Facts exceed fiction!

Who was your favorite character and why?

My favorite character is the narrator, Sarah Barron. She is in complete command of the material. The pronunciation, inflection. cadence and pace fit the information. The Scottish melody and lilt in her voice startled me for about a minute; then I found it delightful and particularly appropriate for this author.

What about Sarah Barron’s performance did you like?

Everything. See my comment about my favorite character..

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

The best of Detective and Court Drama.

Any additional comments?

I would give this book more than five stars if they were offered.It is especially effective as an audiobook by an exceptional narrator with a beautiful melody in her voice.

35 of 39 people found this review helpful

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  • Gillian
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 04-14-17

Wow! I Got This On Sale?!?

I got "Forensics" during a 2 for 1 credit sale Audible was having, thinking it'd be a mishmash of glorified TV-style CSI work: interesting, but not really stimulating.
How surprised I was, then, to find myself engrossed in it. It's historical, scientific, emotional, utterly challenging and humane. You'll find plenty of history thrown into moving examples, plenty of investigators, scientists, devoted individuals going to the max to develop their methods to getting us to where we are today.
Where we are today is not perfect, but it's nice to know there's constant evolvement. After listening to Patricia Cornwell's book on Jack the Ripper, and ALL that wasn't known at the time, it was enlightening to get actual glimpses of how things were viewed, investigations were run, throughout history.
Good fun for the scientifically minded (not too "dumbed down"), good fun for the history buff, and great fun if you want to find yourself absorbed by humane material.
I can't believe I got it for 1/2 a credit!

42 of 47 people found this review helpful

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  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 02-02-16

An Identity Parade of Scientific Techniques

Fictional forensic science has a huge fan base and lots of shows to choose from - television shows like the CSI (2000-present) and NCIS (2003-present) franchises, and "Bones" (2005-2015). Television series make forensic science look glamorous and easy, with crimes solved in 42 minutes by attractive but often socially inept polymaths, adept at finding obscure bone caches, performing facial reconstruction, and then running familial DNA analysis after the next commercial.

Val McDermid's "Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime" (2015) shows that in real life, each area is a separate discipline, developed over centuries of careful scientific research. Sometimes inspiration by very well trained scientists leads to key advances, like polymerase chain reaction developed by Kary Banks Mullis, PhD - but no matter how brilliant the development seems, it's still peer reviewed and validated. That's why the pseudoscience of phrenology (taking skull measurements to determine if someone is a criminal), in vogue for 30 years in the 19th century, was discredited. McDermid addresses more modern forensic fads that come and go, and takes a piercing look at criminal profiling. It's not a crime panacea. She debunks the story that profiling identified George Metesky, the Mad Bomber - good old fashioned detective work (ironically, by a ConEd employee, not law enforcement) identified Metesky, who happened to mostly fit a profile.

McDermid discusses the centuries' long development of forensics, including the very first forensic handbook, Song Ci's "The Washing Away of Wrongs" (~1247) and the investigation of the murder of Julius Caesar (44 BCE). More modern crimes are included. No book on murder investigations and forensics would be complete without Jack the Ripper (1888-1891), and McDermid addresses it briefly - but she includes detailed discussions of less well known serial crimes, like former fire investigator John Orr's arson spree that probably lasted decades, and took at least 4 lives - and took multiple sciences to solve.

What I found really fascinating about this book was the application of the science to the law. It's interspersed throughout the book, but especially in the last chapter, "The Courtroom." McDermid's Scottish, and for the most part, she's writing about the law of the United Kingdom. It's not the same as the United States - for example, double jeopardy has apparently been abolished in the UK, and the Crown (prosecutors) can appeal a "Not Guilty" verdict. The science is the same, but how it's used is not. The stakes are higher in the US. When the prosecution looses, that's it. Experts are, with few court appointed exceptions, hired to benefit the side that retains them. Experts aren't advocates per se, but if their testimony isn't helpful, the side that hired them doesn't produce the analysis or have them testify. It makes for a good adversarial system, but not for good science.

This is another book that made me wish Audible had a true table of contents. Here it is, with thanks to the Buffalo, NY Public Library System. The first Audible chapter is an introduction, followed by 1. The Crime Scene; 2. Fire Scene Investigation; 3. Entomology; 4. Pathology; 5. Toxicology; 6. Fingerprinting; 7. Blood Spatter and DNA; 8. Anthropology; 9. Facial Reconstruction; 10. Digital Forensics; 11. Forensic Psychology; 12. The Courtroom.

Sarah Barron's narrated with a Scottish brogue. That, together with the British English phrases, made the listen more fun than an American English narration - at least for this Californian.

The title of the review is the UK phrase for a line up.

[If this review helped, please press YES. Thanks!]

102 of 116 people found this review helpful

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  • colleen
  • ANCHORAGE, AK, United States
  • 07-11-15

Basic look into the history & science of forensics

Interesting insight into the past and present science of forensics in the UK and the USA. Good narration and easy to listen to. Probably nothing you haven't seen on television CSI and crime dramas.

31 of 36 people found this review helpful

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  • Paul
  • Austin, TX
  • 04-24-17

The Accent of the Narrator is killing this Book

The accent of the woman reading the book is so thick and so unnerving, it is impossible to get into the content.

I'm sorry, but I cannot recommend this book.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Andy
  • Westport, CT, United States
  • 09-10-15

illuminating, with great detail

This book does a great job of laying out how forensics works. Lots of solid, real life examples, along with the history of how it all developed. Super narration too.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Scottish Accent makes it hard to listen

Would you listen to Forensics again? Why?

Not sure. It was hard to listen to because the performer reads it in Scottish English, and her accent is thick as treacle.

What did you like best about this story?

It is more like a set of short stories that deal with different aspects of Forensics, the history of Forensics and land mark cases.

What didn’t you like about Sarah Barron’s performance?

She was hard for me to understand. I speak American English, and a London accent is not hard to listen to - but Sarah's accent is thick..years ago, I was told that it takes a half hour for someone to listen to someone speaking in an accent before you can understand them clearly. But I found that I still had to replay parts of her book, even after listening for a half hour.

If you could give Forensics a new subtitle, what would it be?

A UK Centric view of Forensics. It was very clear that not only the reader had an accent that was more at home on the other side of the Atlantic, but I learned way more than I care about regarding the structure of what labs serve local UK police departments and how. Some US stuff is covered, as is some stuff from other countries, but the detail about who reports to who and how and who is called out and so forth was very UK centric.

Any additional comments?

Had I listened to the audio sample, I would not have purchased this book. The reader can do an American accent where she was quoting Americans. I think that she could have read the book in a London accent and it would have been easier to listen to.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful