Pick Your Poison (Forensics in Historical Mystery, Part 1)

Two weekends ago, I spoke at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference on the topic of Forensics in Historical Mystery.

A number of people asked me to share the information here on the blog, so for the next few Mondays I’ll be talking about translating modern forensics into historical settings, and how I handle forensics issues in the Shinobi Mysteries.

For the uninitiated, “forensics” literally translates “of the law” – and the science of forensics involves the interface between science and law. More specifically, forensics is the science of investigating and solving crimes.


However, the primary job of forensics isn’t catching killers. Forensics aims to make a connection between a person (usually a suspect) and a location or a crime. The connection may be coincidental – for example, a person who passed through a crime scene before or after the incident, but had no connection to the crime – or may provide evidence of a suspect’s guilt. Forensic scientists prove the connection. After that, investigators – such as police, detectives, and sometimes even lawyers – must decide what the evidence means.

In mystery novels, especially historical mysteries, the author often lacks a forensic scientist per se. The investigator/detective often fills both roles. Fortunately, this actually makes better fiction, because it streamlines the investigation and the story.

However, an author can’t just jump headlong into forensics. The writer must make several important decisions before the story starts.

The first one deals with the type of mystery the author wants to write.

Mystery novels fall into somewhere between 2 and 14 categories, depending on which list the reader uses. For forensics purposes, I’m using only two: “cozy” mysteries, in which violence, blood and sex don’t normally appear on the page, and “everything else,” which covers hard boiled, soft boiled, police procedurals, noir, and any other mystery where blood, killing, violence and sex could appear on the page.

The type of mystery an author writes dictates the kind of forensics the author will use.

Cozy Mysteries tend to be “forensics light” – you probably won’t see blood evidence, but the detective will often deal with fingerprints, impressions (footprints and other items that leave impressions or marks in soft surfaces), and trace evidence like hairs and fibers.

Non-Cozy Mysteries, like my Shinobi Mysteries, could feature any of the forensics you’d see in a cozy, plus blood spatter, wounds on a corpse’s body, toxicology, and anything else a creative writer imagines – the sky’s the limit.

Hard Boiled and Police Procedural mysteries tend to have the heaviest forensic involvement, because detectives in those types of mysteries often use the forensics themselves to solve the crime.

Clearly, the type of mystery an author chooses has a vital impact on the type and extent of forensics available to the writer and the story.

The first step in writing historical forensics is much the same as planning a murder: you have to pick your poison.

Tune in next week for part 2: Era, Setting, and Detective!

Did your desire to use forensics influence your writing choices? Have you ever selected a writing project based on something “secondary” that you wanted to include in the story?

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