Today I offer a real treat: an interview with Lisa Black, whose background as a forensic scientist brings realism and details to her thrillers that few other authors can offer.
1. Your new book is Trail of Blood, the third novel featuring forensic scientist Theresa McLean. Tell us about the plot, and what inspired it.
Trail of Blood emerges from the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Cleveland during the Great Depression. He was brutal, prolific and never caught—the American version of Jack the Ripper. There are so many factors that make this a fascinating story. He actually cut his victims to pieces and wrapped them in newspaper—neatly. Eliot Ness was the safety director of Cleveland at the time, after cleaning up Chicago. The economy had collapsed and people still weren’t over the first world war. There was no DNA testing, no television and no one had ever heard the term ‘serial killer.’
Trail of Blood begins where history leaves off, when the series of murders begin over again. Forensic scientist Theresa MacLean must use her knowledge of both Cleveland’s past and forensic science to discover the secret behind these frenzied crimes and keep history from repeating itself.
2. You yourself are a forensic scientist and a specialist in latent fingerprints. How often do you use real cases in your novels? Any examples?
Most real-life cases are interesting, but not interesting enough to sustain a full length novel. Usually I pick up pieces from real cases, small details that stuck in my mind. Evidence of Murder was the closest to reality: the victim, an escort, came from a case I worked in Cleveland and the (virtually untraceable) method of murder was whispered to me by a medical examiner’s assistant, who had worked such a case in Miami.
3. What’s the most memorable real-life case you’ve encountered on the job?
We had a fifteen-year-old stab his closest friend, another fifteen-year-old, upwards of 175 times because they got into an argument over a video game.
4. Undoubtedly, when you read thrillers written by other authors, you spot tons of mistakes. What are the most common ones? The most annoying ones?
In both novels and film, the most common ones would be a) picking up a piece of evidence before you photograph it and sketch it’s location, and b) then putting that item in a plastic bag instead of a paper one. The most annoying one is the coroner’s or medical examiner’s staff member who has an unhealthy appreciation for dead bodies. I worked there. No one was overly fond of dead bodies.
- For novelists who aren’t criminalists, what are the best online or print sources for information?
The FBI and the IAI (International Association for Identification). www.fbi.org and www.theiai.org.
- Thanks to the “CSI effect,” I’ve noticed a huge upswing in interest among college students (especially women) who now want careers in forensics. What’s the job market look like these days?
I would strongly suggest that graduates have a backup plan. Crime labs do not employ dozens of people just as they don’t have every piece of equipment known to man. Forensic support services have been expanding and the federal government is kicking in a lot of grant money, but still—there are an awful lot of CSI fans out there! But I would never want to discourage anyone from going into this line of work, because I love it.
Very informative interview! Thank you both!
Quick question: How often (if ever) does a forensic scientist take on any aspect of an investigative role, as is so often portrayed in fictional scenarios like CSI? I figured it would be limited, but is it done at all?
Nice interview, Tess and Lisa!
Tess, thanks for the interview. Lisa, I imagine it must be more difficult to read fiction in your area of expertise. Do you have to suspend your disbelief more than others might? Have you ever just had to put down a novel with great plot and characters because the mistakes kept pulling you out of the story?
I can't really say how often forensic personnel take on an 'investigative' role. Technically we're always in an investigative role, just as a member of a team and not the leader of it. I might go out and collect samples of duct tape to see if I can identify a manufacturer, for example, but that's not going out on my own, that's doing my job. I would never, EVER go interview witnesses or return to a scene or search for evidence without the detective or at least with the detective's knowledge. It's dangerous; you'll want witnesses and proper procedure followed to avoid any question of the evidence's admissiblity (is that a word?); and it might bruise the detective's ego, a faux pas for which you will pay for years. A book or TV show ends. You have to continue working with these people.
Writers try very hard to be accurate, I've found, about forensic details and police procedure. They still make mistakes and so do I, so I'm completely understanding about that and have no trouble overlooking it for great characters and plot. TV makes much more egregious errors, but I can usually tolerate those too. It's fiction, not a documentary. What I find more annoying is the implication that you're some sort of slacker if you have a life outside your job, and more harmful is the implication that you can always find more evidence if you just look harder. There isn't always more evidence, and the evidence you do have doesn't always prove anything.
Speaking of mistakes, I apologize for the 'it's' instead of 'its' in the answer to question #4.
Lisa, I adore your writing and this interview is another piece of evidence of why that's true. Thanks for visiting Murderati.
Thanks so much!!
I'm feeling pretty good today, the paperback "Evidence of Murder" is on Barnes & Noble's bestselling mass market list.
But then my current work in progress is not cooperating….isn't that always the way?
A spectacular interview. Lisa, I must admit that I've never read your books but I'm heading out today to pick one up.
Thank you for visiting Murderati.
Thanks again, both for the interview, and for answering mine and Debbie's questions. Both answers were very informative and helpful! Good luck wrestling that pesky WIP into shape. I'm sure it will be a dynamic read by the time you're done with it!!
Jake, thanks for posting a thanks on my behalf (trying to stay focused on the edit-although oldest's messy room akin to an explosion is distracting me quite nicely)! Perhaps an excavator and a dumptruck?
Lisa, I appreciate your answer and taking the time to be hear. Congrats on the B&N news. 🙂
Thanks for the info, Tess and Lisa…and I'm wondering if you've heard of, or have any comment on, the recent scandals involving North Carolina' SBI lab?
Interesting article. My thoughts: it's written for maximum turbulance using a minimum of detail. "Anecdotal evidence" equals rumors. The FBI agent investigating hasn't has any more training in reading blood test results than the analysts doing it, and significantly less. There seems to be a severe problem with their report writing policy, but she doesn't tell us what that policy is, exactly. The reporter takes 1000 words to say that some analysts reported presumptive blood tests as conclusive. In this day and age it would hardly matter, as any blood would be sent for DNA testing and that would settle the matter by default. HOWEVER they are right that this is completely wrong. Presumptive tests should always be reported as such, especially back before DNA testing and amplification. I believe a lab, like any other organization, excels or suffers based on its leadership, and the leaders should have caught this error in policy.
This is so hard for me to understand because, though I've only worked for two labs, we never, ever, even overstated any result to make prosecutors or detectives happy. I've always believed that was a creation of fiction, because no matter what else happens in the case, I'm the one who's going to be on the witness stand having to defend my conclusions. That is my primary (and primarily selfish!) consideration. I have great respect for prosecutors and detectives, but they are not my pals and I am not theirs. (Especially when they schedule a trial for a week on which I was supposed to be on vacation!)
It's a shame that situations like this occur.
This is a fabulous interview – and thanks for the sources, Lisa!
I agree. Thanks for the great interview and sources…
The book sounds great – I've read a lot about Ness and the Torso killer and will be very interested to see what you do with it.
Thanks for being here, Lisa, and I'm already racking my brain to remember if I've ever had a detective character handle something without sketching. I hope not!
Tess, thanks for being the interviewer. Lisa, thanks for being the interviewee.
I have to say that the case you mentioned re: the 15-year-old kids would be incredibly difficult to forget. Wow.
Great interview, Tess and Lisa, thank you.
Lisa, I wonder what role the "CSI effect" has had in how much you have to explain procedure to juries, or the lack thereof, when it can't be done the way it's shown on TV. Have you ever suspected that a jury was tougher on the prosecution now that they have all of these misconceptions about what can and can't be done?
Do you get asked a zillion questions now at every cocktail party you go to? (grin)
Thanks, Tess and Lisa! Great interview.
I don't have any actual experiences with 'the CSI effect' so I can't really be sure. I never talk to the jury or get to hear about their thoughts. They usually appear noncommittal and just a little bored–for which I don't blame them, most of a court proceeding is monumentally dull. A testimony expert told me: Juries don't know as much as they think they know, but they do know more than they used to know. Unless they live in a vacuum, their expectations have to be a bit inflated. However, I think juries are smarter, on average, than they get credit for. They can see through the posturing and rhetoric to see that objections to evidence are usually just that: posturing and rhetoric, no matter what side of the courtroom it's coming from.
One of the greatest thing about working in forensics in this day and age is that when I go to a cocktail party, people actually WANT to talk to me. That never happened in my previous life!
Thanks so much for hosting me on this blog!