As you are probably beginning to realise, there are many genres in the Literary Exploration Challenge that I have been dreading having to read. It feels like almost every time I write an update I'm saying 'this genre isn't my usual cup of tea' - who knew I was so narrow-minded when it comes to books?! But there is probably no category on the list that I found so unappealing as True Crime. To be honest, I was surprised it even made it onto the challenge list, as when I think of True Crime books I think of trashy, sensationalist accounts of grisly murders that aren't particularly 'literary' at all. In my head I tend to lump them in with those 'misery memoir' books about people who have suffered terrible childhoods. There's a certain sense of voyeurism about them. Of course there are many well-written mysteries and crime novels that are based on true stories, but my overall impression of the genre was not good.
Inspiration eventually came from an unlikely source. I was flicking through my old copies of the BMJ and in amongst all the journal articles and studies I came across their literary column, where they highlight books, poems or plays with an interesting medical slant. This particular issue had recommended a bestselling autobiographical account of a doctor with an unusual and fascinating career. I suspected it would be long out-of-print and impossible to track down, but fortunately ReadItSwapIt came to the rescue and I managed to source a second-hand copy.
Professor Keith Simpson was the first Professor of Forensic Medicine at Guy's hospital in London, and began his career as a forensic pathologist in the 1930s and 40s. He worked on countless high-profile murder cases for the Home Office and Scotland Yard, involving criminals who have now become infamous, such as the Kray twins and Lord Lucan.
By far the most fascinating aspect of this book is the detail about the history of forensic medicine. Anybody who reads a lot of crime fiction or watches CSI would think Simpson was working in a completely different world. These days it is easy to think that a murderer can be convicted on the basis of a DNA match from a cheek swab that takes 5 seconds to do. But back in wartime Britain the technology to do that didn't exist and it was infinitely more difficult to prove someone guilty. Simpson pioneered techniques that we take for granted today, such as forensic odontology (identifying a criminal from bite marks left on the victim). He also had to demonstrate the quick intelligence to explain and justify his conclusions in court.
His writing style can come across as a bit smug and self-congratulatory, and that did grate at times, but to be fair his achievements are truly astounding. I was amazed to read that on one occasion he was able to prove murder had taken place through identifying a single gall stone in a pile of rubble (with only the naked eye) after the rest of the body had been dissolved in acid.
As well as learning about the roots of forensic pathology you get a real insight into how much society in general has changed over the years. A large number of the criminals mentioned in this book were eventually hanged, and it's also interesting to read about how many got off scot-free because of a lack of hard evidence in court. Without the concrete proof provided by DNA tests etc., a conviction could rest solely on the pathologist's clinical deductions and reasoning, and it was often possible for the defence to pick holes in his logic. I was also amused to see how much society's attitudes towards doctors have changed. Simpson discusses a case in which he proved the innocence of a doctor who had been accusing of killing his patient for monetary gain. He dismisses this as a possible motive:
"She had left an estate of £157,000, out of which the doctor received an old Rolls Royce and a chest containing silver valued at £275...hardly a rich legacy!"I imagine concerns might certainly be raised these days if a GP inherited a car and a chest of silver from one of his patients! On the other hand, Simpson also talks about doctors who got into trouble after prescribing morphine and sedatives for palliation of their terminally ill patients. When you consider the fuss that has recently been kicked up in the press about palliative care and the use of the Liverpool Care Pathway, it seems that maybe not so much has changed after all.
So of course, this is a book chock-full of gruesome stories and grisly details, and if you are of a squeamish disposition then I'd steer well clear. But anybody who is a fan of crime fiction - particularly with a forensic/pathological theme, such as the novels of Tess Gerritsen or Patricia Cornwell - would do well to track down a copy as it is a really interesting read.