#HNS2023 Conference Preview by Kerry Cathers
Every mystery needs an evidence trail. But what if your story is set in the era before forensics? Before police forces? Before crime labs? Some people view the absence of forensic and police procedures in the nineteenth century as a hinderance to their fiction. I see it as an excess of opportunities waiting to be exploited by authors. Whether you are considering writing a historical mystery or you’re just curious about nineteenth-century criminal investigations, The Good, the Bad, and the Bloody, will show you what evidence was available, how it was collected, and teach you strategies you can use as a writer to manipulate the evidence and procedures to assist (or hinder) your sleuth.
- What physical evidence can your murderer leave behind? More than you think. From the late seventeenth century, law enforcement (in all its forms) was acutely aware of the importance, of physical evidence, and the necessity of linking it indisputably to a suspect. Wherever possible, they collected evidence. How much and what kind of evidence depends on which part of the century your story is set. The deeper into the century we go, the more there is for authors to play with, and the more scientific it becomes. By the end of the century, microscopic evidence becomes available. So much so, that you can tell where your victim was drowned based on the water in their lungs.
- If no procedures existed, how were crime scenes processed and how was the evidence handled? This is where you can play to your heart’s delight. Every answer is: It depends. And who decides? You do. How a crime scene was processed was decided by the senior most individual present. Need your villain to have a bit of luck? Have a bumbling constable destroy the scene before senior officers arrive. Or a senior officer toss aside all caution because he doesn’t believe there’s anything of use. Does your plot need a thorough search of the scene? Base your sleuth on Henry Goddard, or Eugene Vidocq, who secured crime scenes and instigated thorough, systematic searches for anything and everything that seemed remotely useful to the case.
- Can you use evidence before it was used in a real court case? Again, the answer is: It depends. There are some hard dates that must be adhered to. (Can’t use something that wasn’t yet invented.) But there’s a lot that is flexible. You’ll be taught how to think like a nineteenth-century sleuth, and once you understand how law enforcement, and scientists, problem-solved, you can be creative with your clues. A few essential ingredients, and you can successfully process evidence and convict your villain.
Kerry Cathers runs the website A Curiosity of Crime and produces a newsletter which are research resources for authors of nineteenth-century detective fiction. She published her first book in a research series, A Writer’s Guide to Nineteenth-Century Murder by Arsenic. She teaches forensics and nineteenth-century to help authors craft intriguing and accurate fiction. She has been studying history most of her life and has earned three degrees in the subject; one in Canada and two in England. She works as a freelance writer and editor.