How evidence from plants can make a difference in criminal cases

I read quite a lot of crime fiction, as you can easily see from the books that I have talked about this year on this blog. Occasionally I wonder just how close to real life they are whilst definitely not wanting to find out from personal experience. This has meant that I have read the odd book about crime investigation as well as some true crime. I am not scientifically minded so any book I do read needs to be aimed at the general reader. In the past I have read Forensics by Val McDermid which I highly recommend and which is possibly the only book ever to have been read and enjoyed by me, my husband and my mother in law (three very different readers). I have also read All That Remains by Sue Black about her work in forensic anthropology and anatomy which is fascinating.

Traces by Professor Patricia Wiltshire is a book about how plants can be used in forensic work and how she has assisted the police with her forensic work. I listened to this book on audio which was read by Antonia Beamish.

The author was one of the first people to make the forensic examination of plant remains into a discipline, which she could do because of her life spent in botany. There are now experts around the world who do similar work and who keep in touch but the author is not confident that there sufficient high quality people are learning the science to continue her work.

The book shows how plant remains as small as pollen grains can give clues about where a body has been or, when picked up from car floors and shoes, what type of location has been used to hide a dead person. The author is clear about what you can discover and gives examples of cases in which she has been involved which show how this science can be used. It’s fascinating stuff and definitely not too complicated to understand even if you have problems telling a daffodil from a crocus.

The book is a semi-autobiography so we follow the author through her life in science and how she develops and refines various techniques. From the beginning police officers are wary of her work and often don’t preserve the scene sufficiently for her to be able to gather the evidence she needs. We realise that this is actually an ongoing problem and the author isn’t very complimentary about how crime scenes in general are managed. She also is unenthusiastic about some other experts called in by the police and their potential usefulness.

What the examples she uses and the stories she tells show us is that plant evidence can make a difference in criminal cases but it seems often to be used to reinforce other findings and knowledge. It can, however, be useful when there is doubt about whether a person has been somewhere and it is a useful tool for the investigator if they are aware what can be discovered.

I’m never going to read a lot of books about science because it just isn’t my thing but this is the type of book I like because it is about the application of scientific investigation to something else in which I am interested. I am certainly now a lot more aware of the evidence that plants can leave.

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