Bones & Maggots – A presentation by the Natural History Museum to The Crime Writers Association.

Once again I find myself grateful to the power of twitter for spotting the mention of this interesting event held by The CWA at The George pub on Strand last night.

CWA Director Claire McGowan, whose own debut crime novel The Fall is due from Headline early 2012, announced that for this event the invitation was open wider than usual.  This was to encourage a few bloggers and reviewers along, and those who could qualify to join the CWA but had yet to sign up.  That, and the opportunity to sit in on a very interesting presentation about Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Entomology made the trip into town very worthwhile indeed.

Due to the nature of some of the material shown on slides and the fact that much of the work formed pat of one of the presenter’s current PHD work meant that, once the talk was underway, photography was banned and it’s best I don’t provide too much specific detail here.  There were some areas and images which I really would have struggled to have found the words to describe anyhow, and it was quote interesting to see which writers in the room squirmed the most when presented with death and decay at such close quarters, despite it being on a screen.

Both speakers were from the Natural History Museum and it became apparent very early on just how often their skills are called into play by the Police when cases require their expertise on determining time of death.  The ‘Grissom’ effect (so named because of the CSI character) is something they are in constant battle with, when the Police at crime scenes expect immediate answers and timelines to death, without giving them the time required to fully analyse the body, body part , bone or the parasites that have done their work on the corpse.

Heather Bonney – Forensic Anthropologist at NHM manages the human remains collection there – her workplace lined with boxes and boxes of skeletal remains and their stories.  Whilst her stories were gruesome at times (it will be sometime before I can forget an image of a child carrying Somerfield carrier bags of bones he had dug up and taken home to identify in a book before taking them to the crime scene and giving them to the investigators) it was the second speaker’s work that was, well, fresher and more disturbing.

Amoret Whitaker is a Forensic Entomologist at NHM, she’s the maggots and bugs lady if you will.  Her work on decomposition and specifically the work she is involved in at the Body Farm in Tennessee provided some horrific images but all in the name of science.

The skills employed by both disciplines are clearly painstaking in their detail, the slightest slip up in the identification of an insect or in the temperature in which a body has been kept was clearly illustrated to potentially give the Police the wrong information in terms of time of death.  It was well illustrated that these sciences cannot be rushed, but likewise that there have been huge advances in the kit at their disposal to do their work.  And, as Amoret admitted, thanks to shows like CSI, she no longer has to explain what her job title means when she meets people at parties.

A very interesting and thought provoking evening, with several pens zipping across notebooks in the room – it will be interesting to see which of the cases mentioned will pop up in some shape or form in future crime fiction from some of the names in the room.

My thanks to Claire and all at the CWA for allowing me to come along to experience the event and I’m looking forward to hearing more about future events and the proposal mentioned that plans are afoot to further involve bloggers, reviewers and readers in the CWA in the future.  

www.thecwa.co.uk

Keith

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