Era and Setting: Bringing Historical Forensics Alive

This post continues the Historical Forensics series I started last Monday..

Three cardinal facets of historical mystery are the era, a setting, and the detective, all of which have critical impact on the forensic information the author can utilize. Fortunately, story parameters generally require making these selections first.

Let’s take a closer look at the way the author’s choice of an era and setting impact the story’s forensics:

1. Era: the time in which the story happens.

The choice of historical era impacts every part of an author’s story, including forensics. Technology, a society’s reaction to murders, the murder methods available to a killer, and the knowledge and education of the detective will all be influenced by the era in which the novelist sets the tale.

For example: let’s look at DNA testing.

A set of 1983 murders in Narborough, England resulted in the first police use of DNA screening on a population in an attempt to solve the crime. In 1987 a man named Colin Pitchfork gave a DNA sample to police. When his sample matched DNA found at the crime scenes, Pitchfork confessed to committing the murders (and, in 1988, was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes).

An author writing a mystery novel set in the 1970s (or at any time before that) won’t have DNA testing available to his or her detective. The technology didn’t exist.

Conversely, authors who set books in the present day may not be able to rely on a killer confessing “just” because DNA was found at the crime scene. Why? Because the population’s familiarity with DNA evidence takes a bit of the “magic bullet” quality away from the technique. It’s still definitive proof, but if the DNA was found in the victim’s apartment (as opposed to blood or semen found in or on the corpse) the killer might try to argue the evidence proves connection, but not guilt.

2. Setting: the place where the story happens.

Like the choice of an era, the choice of a specific setting influences almost every facet of a mystery.

For example, novels set in medieval Kyoto (like my Shinobi series), will probably involve more violent murders (and necessitate a style other than cozy), whereas a cozy series set in and around a Victorian-era library is likely to feature fewer beheadings and more poisonings, strangulations, and other relatively “quiet” crimes.

The author must pick a setting which lends itself to the preferred murder methods (and related forensics) as well as the chosen detective’s ability to solve the crime.

You couldn’t drop a ninja detective  into Victorian England and expect him (or her) to solve a nobleman’s murder, but plant him in medieval Kyoto and there’s no better choice to solve a crime.

The choice of setting impacts forensics in more specific ways, too. The author needs a period-appropriate crime. The choice of poison, the murder weapon, and the physical act of killing the victim must fit not only the era, but the setting as well.

Era and Setting are powerful tools for selecting not only the story but the nature, type, and extent of the forensics available to the author and his or her detective. Choose wisely – the life you save may be your own.

Do you write novels set in historical eras and settings? If so, how did you make your choice? And if not, what settings and eras appeal most to you?