Tripping Over Your Corpse: A Writer’s Guide to Forensic Death Investigations (Part 1)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Hey guys! As many of you know, I am a forensic death investigator for a local Medical Examiner’s Office in Florida by profession. I’ve been doing this kind of work for about ten years now and, as you might figure, I get a lot of authors asking me questions about forensics all the time. So, I decided one day, I’d do something to try to help my writer friends out and that is what this (and future) blog posts is all about. For the next few weeks, I’m going to write a “How-to” guide for writers…but don’t freak out! You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy this book. If you’re a fan of forensics or CSI or NCIS or anything similar, you should enjoy these blog posts too. After all, I’ll be sharing inside tips of forensic death investigations for all to see…and hopefully doing it in an entertaining and fun way. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the writing process [And um, if you’d like, feel free to share these posts with your friends!]

Oh, and one more thing. Keep in mind that these posts will be just the first draft of the book. Sentences will be clunky. I’ll have typos. Points and arguments might only be halfway expressed. The actual book will be much more detailed and informative.

NYPD Detective Dirk Squarejaw whipped off his sunglasses and crouched down for a better look at the body. “What have we got?” he asked Medical Examiner Dr. Rip M. Upp.
Upp pulled off his latex gloves, stuffing them in the pockets of his lab coat and shrugged. “Looks like a close contact gunshot wound to the head. A through and through.”
“What kind of ammo was used?”
The coroner shook his head. “Don’t know yet. Bullet is still lodged in the victim’s head. We won’t know until we do the autopsy.”
Squarejaw stood, stretching his legs. “What about time of death?”

Upp smiled. “That is something I can definitely help you with. From the rigor and lividity present in the body, I’d say he died around 8:12 p.m. last night.”

The detective smiled at this. “Excellent, Doc! That’s something to work with.”  Then, he turned and looked over at Ivy Dripp, the police department’s crime scene investigator as she took the last of her photos. “What about you? Find anything interesting?”

“Some shell casings from bullets from a 12 gauge shotgun,” she said, pulling out the casing from its plastic bag and showing it to the detective. “I won’t be able to run ballistics on it for a while. I have to interrogate a suspect first, then run fingerprints that I found near the body, and construct a criminal profile. After that, I’ll get the ballistics and can hopefully find a matching gun to go with it. I should have something back to you in about forty-five minutes or so.”
“Darn it, Ivy!” Dirk shouted. “That’s too long! I need something now. I can’t let the killer get away again. Not this time.” He scowled at the body as he whipped his sunglasses once more onto the bridge of his nose, then glanced menacingly at the camera that wasn’t there. “Not ever again.”
                                                             * * * *
Ha ha! Sound familiar? It should. It’s a parody of just about every crime scene investigation show on TV today. And besides the over the top drama, it actually sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Authentic? With me throwing words and phrases like: “through and through” gunshot wound, “running ballistics”, “We won’t know more until after the autopsy”, etc. Yeah…those definitely sound good, right?
Well, here’s a bit of news for you. I’m not sure if there was a single sentence in that little parody that was accurate. As a matter of fact, I went to great pains to make sure that almost every sentence contradicted itself as the erstwhile crime scene gurus did their thing.
Okay, heck. Let’s play a little game. Let’s see how many mistakes you can catch in the above scenario. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you. Go back up, read the story again, and see how many mistakes and/or faux pas you can catch. Who knows? You might even discover more mistakes than I did. So go ahead, figure it out, and I’ll be right here when you get back.
Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmhmmmmm. Hmmm.
Oh, you’re back! Excellent. So? How did you do? How many problems did you find? Really? That many? Okay…let’s see. We’re going to go through them one at a time and I’ll explain why they’re mistakes. Then, I’ll explain the whole point behind this inane little exercise.
Okay, first of all, don’t get me started on TV actors whipping off their sunglasses and looking cool at crime scenes. That’s not what this book is about, so I’ll refrain from commenting on the silliness of that. But the story starts with Detective Squarejaw crouching over the body to take a look. This is fine. As long as the detective is careful, a closer examination of the body at a crime scene is important for the investigator. However, I will say this…if the detective had tried to touch the body, there would have been major problems. Touching the body without Medical Examiner authorization is a major no-no. At least, in the state of Florida. It can possibly contaminate the evidence that might be present. But once again, our detective made no such mistake here. So, where is our first mistake?
Well, that’s easy. It’s the Medical Examiner’s answer to the Squarejaw’s question of “What have we got?” How did Dr. Upp respond? By stating that the gunshot wound is a close contact, through and through injury. Now, I didn’t give enough information to determine whether it was a close contact wound (meaning, the barrel of the weapon is placed within a very close range to the victim when fired), so we can’t say for sure that’s the mistake. However, the use of the phrase “through and through” is a major issue. A definite mistake. Why? Excellent, my dear Watson! Because later, he tells the detective that he can’t identify the bullet because it’s still “lodged in his head.” So what’s wrong with that? Easy! By definition, a “through and through” is a projectile that enters and then exits the victim. Through and through is cop-speak for “in and out”. Therefore, if the bullet is still inside the head, it didn’t exit and therefore, is not a through and through. Make sense?
Okay. What other mistakes did you find? Well, let’s now quicken the pace a bit and just outline the problems:
  • Medical Examiner vs. Coroner – When I first introduce Dr. Upp, I state that he is a Medical Examiner. Then, a few lines down, I call him a coroner. Now, contrary to popular belief, the two terms are not synonymous. They are actually two very different things and should not be confused for each other in your stories. I’ll go into the specific differences in next week’s post!
  • Time of Death – In our story, when the M.E. is unable to determine the type weapon used in the through and through gunshot wound that still held the projectile, Detective Squarejaw asks our worthy doctor a relatively simple question…when did the victim die? And like a good supporting cast character, he gives a very precise answer. Okay. I’ll admit it. This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves of all detective fiction or television shows. The M.E. is asked time of death and they give it to within five to ten minutes. The reason this is a major pet peeve for me is…well, because people see this on TV and expect real Medical Examiners to be able to do the same thing. So I get the phone calls from irate family members who don’t understand why I can’t tell them when their loved ones die. You want to know the most accurate way to determine the time frame of someone’s death? I’ll give you the super scientific formula for it right here: Time last seen alive + Time person was found = Person died between those two times. I’m not joking. That’s the most accurate time frame of death any legitimate Medical Examiner can give. Granted, there are definitely telltale signs to help narrow it down a bit…but those signs aren’t accurate. Later in the book, I’ll share with you what those signs are and why they’re not the best indicators for time of death.
  • Bullet vs. Shot vs. Projectile – Now in the same line where I call Dr. Upp a coroner, I mention the fact that he can’t identify the “bullet”. But later, the crime scene investigator mentions that the shell casing found at the scene was from a 12 gauge shotgun (as a matter of fact, Ms. Dripp calls it a bullet too!). But that’s a problem because shotguns don’t use bullets. They use shotgun shells containing numerous pellets. Some times, they do use slugs which are similar to bullets, but they are distinctly different. So, in the field, it is best to use the term “projectile” until the bullet, slug, or shot can be identified. Now granted, this is an over simplification. But it works to illustrate the need to be careful when describing the projectiles used in your stories.
  • Ballistics and shotgun shells – Okay, if the weapon is, in fact, a shotgun…then a ballistics match is impossible. Like I said, most shotgun shells shoot a bunch of small round pellets that have been compressed into a plastic container known as a shell. The way ballistics work is by examining the striations (or grooves) cut into a lead bullet fired from a handgun or rifle. You see, most handguns and rifles have spiralling grooves inside their barrels that act to help propel the projectile and keep it steady in flight. These spirals are all different and individual to each weapon because they change over time with use. A ballistics examiner can compare the grooves cut into a projectile to the spirals in the barrel of a gun and connect a bullet with a particular weapon. Of course, another issue with this is that the police have to have a weapon to compare the bullet to…or they’re out of luck. But see, you don’t get those grooves forming on the pellets fired from a shotgun, so there would be no way ballistics would help.
  • Specialization vs. the One-Man Army – Then, you have my all time favorite mistake! Ignoring the beauty of specialization. The TV show CSI is notorious for this. On CSI, you have essentially a crime scene technician (who is rarely sworn law enforcement these days) who carry guns, chase down bad guys, get in shoot outs, interrogate suspects, conduct experiments, know the chemical compositions of Windex glass cleaner, can fix their neighbor’s air conditioning unit with a paperclip and bubblegum, do ballistics examinations, fingerprint examinations, eat dinner, go shopping, write their dissertation, compare car tire tracks……and solve the crime all in less than an hour and all by themselves. In reality, like any other profession, we have specialties. A crime scene tech is a very specialized field. What do they do? They scour a crime scene and collect any evidence that they, or the detectives, discover that might be used to solve the crime (and get a conviction on the suspect). That’s it. For the most part, they don’t do interrogations. They collect the evidence and then transport that evidence to their local law enforcement office where that evidence is then processed by specialists in various fields. Yes, there are people who specialize in ballistics. Specialize in fingerprint analysis. Specialize in profiling. Heck, there are even some people who specialize in interrogation techniques. But it’s a team effort. The task of catching bad guys is passed on to many different people who are experts at what they do. So don’t make the mistake that Ivey Dripp did…break up the task of solving crimes to the people who truly know what they’re doing. After all, which is better when trying to catch a killer…a single detective who knows a little about everything or numerous people who are exceptionally knowledgeable in their specialized field?
There might be a few more little mistakes I threw into the narrative for good measure, but I think I’ve proven my point with this little exercise. There are a lot of mistakes that can be made when writing a scene involving a…well, a crime scene. It would be to any author’s best interest to make sure they have at least the major aspects of an investigation portrayed correctly. Does your crime scene have to be one hundred percent accurate to true life?
Heck no! After all, the beauty of a great cozy mystery is that they often forgo procedural forensics for the sake of atmosphere. How boring would it be to find out that Colonel Mustard killed Mr. Body in the library with a candlestick if told from a clinically detached, Joe Friday-type narrative. Sometimes, “Just the facts” just doesn’t work. But a decent understanding of forensic death investigations in broad strokes (as will be demonstrated in this book) can go a very long way.
Case in point, in my book The Curse of One-Eyed Jack, I merged certain aspects of forensic science with Appalachian folklore and folk magic. Ezekiel Crane and his companion are scouring the woods in search of a dead body. Crane stumbles upon an ant, picks it up, says something, then puts the ant back down on the ground. Kili, his companion, thinks he’s nuts. She thinks he’s talking to bugs. But as we find out, he’s actually using a discipline of forensics known as entomology…or the study of insects…to track down the location of the dead body. Yes, I absolutely exaggerated the “science” of that scene…but that’s okay. It fit with the overall atmosphere of the book. But it was knowledge of entomology that allowed me to utilize it so effectively and make it almost seem like magic.
So, in this first part of Tripping Over Your Corpse: A Writer’s Guide to Forensic Death Investigation, I hope I’ve shown you the need to become more familiar with the various aspects of the field. I hope I’ve convinced you that a little knowledge can go a long way. And keep in mind, the knowledge I’ll be presenting in this book will be very very broad. I won’t get too specific here about things so that I can cover as many aspects of the field as possible.
I hope you will join me in this great adventure as we explore the fascinating world of forensics together. And I hope you are able to use the information I’ve put together in this volume to make your own writing even better and more authentic.
Tune in next week as we examine the differences between Medical Examiner and Coroner, as well as their roles in death investigation. We will also examine the various other careers attached to the field such as Medical Examiner Investigator, toxicologists, autopsy techs, etc. We’ll also look at what states use Medical Examiners vs. Coroners…and a whole lot more!

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