Being a crime thriller fan myself, as a reader and author, but also viewer, I’ve always been intrigued by the way in which reality of investigative procedures, in particular concerning forensic science, is reinterpreted in fiction (including TV shows and films) for showing it in a way that is comprehensible and able to entertain the audience. One thing I have always noticed is that anyone who is the protagonist of the story, whether it’s a detective, a medical examiner, a criminologist, a prosecutor, a lawyer or even an anthropologist, that character automatically rises to a crucial role in the investigation.
Of course, the procedures vary from one country to another and with respect to the United States, a frequent scenario in which a reader/viewer comes across, even from state to state, so it is not absurd to think that depending on the location where the story takes place the dynamics between people who work to discover the culprit of some crime (generally a murder) are ruled differently.
But, beyond individual cases, I’m more inclined to think that this phenomenon is simply the result of artistic licence. Except when the protagonist is a detective, which by definition has the role to investigate, all the stories with different positions as protagonist must necessarily yield to the will of their creator, so that action involves the main character, and therefore the story works.
The role of medical examiner is one of the most popular. Do you remember “Quincy”? It is a series broadcasted NBC between the 70s and 80s that features a pathologist who finds himself investigating cases of murder. I was too young back then, but I happened to watch it more recently on Sky, and despite the effect of the passing of time, I always find it very compelling.
A similar situation is seen in TV series such as “Crossing Jordan”, “Body of Proof” or the recent “Rosewood”, without forgetting the fiction series of Kay Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell: all series in which pathologists or medical examiners (there is always a lot of confusion about the terminology, which gets worse because of the translations into other languages) will get busy to find the culprit, as if they were detectives, and often risk their life.
The role of the criminologist, however, owes much to the CSI franchise, which has brought it to light for the first time, so that significant interest in it was created in the public and increased the number of young people who wish to pursue this career, and then maybe find that it is much less exciting and decisive in the resolution of a case than how it looks on TV! In this regard, I wrote about the “CSI effect” in an old article.
In the constant search for a possible new star of the investigations that it is not the classic detective, they even came to the forensic anthropologist in “Bones”, a TV series inspired by Kathy Reichs’s (who is a real forensic anthropologist) novels, where Dr. Temperance Brennan along with their colleagues at the Jeffersonian Institute (which does not exist!) in Washington solves brutal murder cases. Okay, along with her is also FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth, but, let’s face it, the engine of all is Brennan.
The reality on how you carry out the investigations of a murder is different, of course, but that doesn’t matter, because we’re talking about fiction, not documentaries. What matters is that the story works and that the reader/viewer is having fun.
And, anyway, the artistic licences go well beyond the roles of the characters. Just think of the clothing on a crime scene. Whoever has watched only an episode of “CSI: Miami” has certainly noticed criminologists wandering among corpses in elegant suits (men) or impeccable lady’s suit complete with shoes with high heels (women). And all this in hot Florida. Where are the protective overalls, shoe covers, hoods and everything else? The maximum that you can see on them is latex gloves!
Not to mention the fact that at the appropriate time they all become perfect shooters or skilled negotiators or that the most insignificant physical evidence (e.g. the usual fibre) is enough to nail the murderer, since there is a database of everything.
In short, artistic licences are everywhere and we are not always able to identify the boundary between reality and fiction. And, all in all, we aren’t even interested.
Personally, being a biologist, I am fascinated by forensic science, but rather at a theoretical level. Having worked in the past in a university laboratory (although my “investigations” were in the field of ecology, so definitely a lot more cheerful!) I know perfectly well that it is a job made of slow procedures, often not entirely reliable, full of repetitions and inconclusive results, where you produce a flood of data of which only a small part is really useful or usable. If the stories narrated what it really means to analyse all the evidence from the scene of a crime, their consumer would be bored to death.
This is why you come to the artistic licence: in books, movies or TV series, each event must push the action forward and it doesn’t matter how the characters are dressed, what their capabilities are or what exactly their roles should be.
So when I found myself writing for the first time a procedural crime thriller, “The Mentor”, on one hand I tried as much as possible to keep a certain inherent logic within the plot as well as a substantial scientific plausibility, on the other hand it was me as author who created the rules that govern the world in which my characters move.
This is how my version of the scientific department at Scotland Yard comes from, where criminologists are almost all also police officers (which is not true in reality) and, as such, not only they own a weapon (most British police officers are not armed), but use it with ease. In addition, I never specify if they are wearing any special protection on the scene, apart from the usual latex gloves, but then I don’t even say the opposite.
Even the explanation of their ranks within the police is minimized according to the needs of the plot. For example, the main character, Detective Shaw, is chief of a scientific team, but only in the second book I clarify that he is a detective chief inspector, because he mentions about a possible promotion, which then will fall into the plot of the final book of the trilogy: “Beyond the Limit”. Similarly in the second book you discover that officer Mills became a sergeant: the reason is to further show the fact that two years have passed.
Sometimes, moreover, the characters can count on futuristic technologies invented by me (like the program used by Martin Stern in “Syndrome” to create an explorable computer recreation of the crime scene) that accompany the real ones, for which I performed specific research (the detection of fingerprints with silver/black powder or blood with luminol).
I also admit that only half of such research is derived from the study of techniques and procedures used in real life, through an online course that I attended (created by the University of Leicester) and of course Google, while the other half comes from my TV, cinema, and fiction background.
Besides, the reader uses it as term of comparison and, basically, reproducing some aspects already seen in a book or on TV does nothing but reinforce the suspension of disbelief and, ultimately, increases the enjoyment of the novel.The purpose is to entertain and artistic licence is and always will be an essential element in achieving this goal, even when it comes to the most rigorous matters, like science.