I recently interviewed with a literary agent. She liked the manuscript of the Angela Masters book she read. However, she made an interesting comment about the setting.
“Your books are set in the 1980’s. That’s too close to the present.”
While that may seem like a strange comment, I understood what she means. The science of criminal investigation has changed markedly in the past 30 years, but it’s sometimes hard for people to really understand how far we’ve come in that time. This has become apparent to me from some of the critiques I receive from my draft chapters. I get comments from well-meaning reviewers that demonstrate the changes of three decades.
Here are a few explanations:
“Why doesn’t Kim (the lab technician) swab for DNA?
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, was first discovered in 1869 by Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher. It’s unique attributes in living things, and the double-helix construction, was first postulated in 1953 by Wilson and Crick. DNA was initially used in paternity suits, and was collected under clinical conditions. The first court introduction of DNA evidence occurred in 1986 in England. Finally, the first DNA-based conviction in the United States occurred in 1987. Tommy Lee Andrews was convicted of rape in the Circuit Court in Orange County, Florida. Andrews’ DNA matched semen traces found in a rape victim.
Therefore, in 1981-1985, the general time frame of the Angela Masters novels, DNA was not a consideration.
“You don’t mention that Angi and the other detectives would don protective plastic booties before they enter a crime scene.”
Today, and for the past twenty years or so, it has been standard for police and medical personnel entering a homicide scene to wear shoe coverings. The primary purpose of this is to protect against blood-borne pathogens, such as AIDS. However, AIDS was first identified in the United States in 1981, and not officially named until 1982. It was not until 1991 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued regulations regarding prevention of occupational exposure by such practitioners as doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Police generally came on board following the lead of EMTs.
Again, this was not a consideration for investigators in the time of these novels. It is true that, even in the early 1980’s, detectives and others sometimes wore latex gloves. However, this practice was not universal, even within a single police agency. Also, it had more to do with avoiding direct contact with bodily fluids in general, as well as other contaminants, rather than disease protection.
“You have Angi going into the crime scene before the CSIs even get there. She would have to wait outside until the CSIs had photographed the scene and collected and processed evidence. Then the CSI would give the detectives the ‘all clear’ to enter.”
I’m amazed at how often this comes up in comments. It’s a good example of why many detectives hate the CSI television shows. CSIs are invaluable in processing scenes for evidence and clues, but they are not at the forefront of an investigation. Similarly, it is not the CSI’s job to interview witnesses, conduct investigations, or make arrests. In many cases, particularly in larger police agencies, CSIs are not sworn police officers. They are highly trained civilians. For example, in the Los Angeles Police Department, a CSI must hold a masters degree to process evidence.
In real life, the lead investigator is completely in charge of the scene. The CSI reports to the lead investigator, not the other way around. In most cases, the lead investigator wants to get a first hand look at the ‘lay’ of the scene, with as little disruption as possible. After this initial view, in which every effort is made not to disturb the scene, then the CSIs will begin their processing.
The current state of scientific support for criminal investigations certainly adds a welcome dimension. However, the decision to place the Angela Masters stories in an earlier time, when these technologies were not available, was a conscious one.
As I noted on the opening page of my website, “The series is set in the 1980’s. Because of this, Angi and her fellow investigators do not have the advantages of DNA, modern cell phones, or other sophisticated technology. Instead, they rely on their training, instincts, and observations to solve horrendous crimes.”
(This article originally appeared on my book website, mikeworleybooks.com.)