I have to state right away that this book was a cracking read – I really enjoyed it, even if the pleasure was something of a guilty one. The only reason it hasn’t got more stars is that, as we’ll see, there’s little science in it, and some really opportunities missed for that.
It’s the story of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, once Britain’s foremost forensic pathologist. As the subtitle says, it’s ‘how Sir Bernard Spilsbury invented modern CSI.’ In truth (and this is why the pleasure was a touch guilty) it’s mostly a true crime book, describing the key cases Spilsbury was involved in. Yes, we are told what Spilsbury did – but the real meat of each story is the lurid crime itself, starting with the one that launched Spilsbury as a superb expert witness, Crippen. I don’t know why, but there are some historical murder cases that stick in the collective consciousness, and Crippen’s crime in 1910 (followed by his capture after fleeing across the Atlantic) has stood the test of time.
So, plenty of great cases, and clever work from Sir Bernard. But hardly anything about the science of crime scene investigation and forensic work, which in the end is what I’d expect from a book being marketed as popular science. A couple of times we hear that Spilsbury really changed the scientific armoury of his profession – but there is hardly any detail about what was involved.
When it comes down to it, if I were a bookseller, and choosing where to put this book, it would go in true crime. not popular science. However, it doesn’t stop it being a compelling piece of writing. Evans dramatizes events with just enough details to carry the reader along. It’s factual, but has all the enticement of a crime novel.