You wouldn’t imagine geology had any relation to crime fiction or in fact to crime in general unless you really think about it. But detectives have always used footprints left at the scene of a crime, for example, to tell us much about what was happening at the time and a little more about victims and suspects. In my current novel, The Unwanted, Sean Fagan discovers footprints or lack of them, lead him to uncovering the principal suspect.
Actually, forensic geology is something that interests me. From having read A Study in Scarlet written by Arthur Conan Doyle many moons ago, I realised that knowledge about soils might allow a detective to solve mysteries in crime fiction. Of course Sherlock Holmes could solve just about any crime he wanted and with his photographic memory it was not above him to tell at a mere glance, from where exactly a soil emanated. Doyle actually included a line where he wrote that Dr Watson had a little if rather limited ‘knowledge of geology.’
So the beginning of forensic geology goes back a very long way. In the contemporary world how might we define this science? Well it is considered to be the use of principles belonging to this scientific discipline to ascertain facts for use in a court of law. Soil science is also something which can be used in tandem with forensic science and the American writer Sarah Andrews has really made these types of investigation her own crime fiction oeuvre.
I came across her novels many years ago when finding one left in a hotel when abroad. Looking for something to read on an evening I decided to give it a try even though I was unsure of the contents.
The basic premise from Doyle still applied and it has been fascinating to see how Andrews’ style has changed over the years as her confidence in writing has developed. Sarah Andrews is actually a geology graduate and first developed her hero Em Hansen as a forensic geologist based in the Rocky Mountains in the US. This was exactly the background to the first title.
She was soon noticed within a short time of publishing her first book and was awarded a National Science Foundation Artists and Writers grant to continue her work. As a consequence, Andrews has travelled to all kinds of places to research her later crime novels and has also developed a character called Valena Walker who is a glaciologist.
Andrews has lots of real life cases to use as inspiration and there are many examples of crimes which have been solved due to the patience of a forensic geologist. They make fascinating reading in themselves. Take a high profile murder such as that of Aldo Moro, who was the Italian Prime Minster back in the 1970s. He was kidnapped and finally murdered by Red Brigade political terrorists. Those involved in the murder investigation were able to ascertain just where his body had been kept. The reason was because having collected only 1g of sand from his clothes and car, the geologists were still able to identify that sand with that from a beach near Rome.
Electron microscopes now allow forensic geologists to place particles smaller than sand grains under incredible magnification. Electron microprobes can also make chemical analyses of grains smaller than 1 mm in diameter, even ascertaining oxygen content which allows a trained eye to see whether mineral grains of metallic origin have oxidised at the same rate.
In this Italian murder case geologists were brought in secretly and were able to discover bitumen and resins used in boat building which were present in the grains of sand. These samples were all collected secretly by a decoy posing as a tourist on a wild flower expedition.
This sounds just up Em Hansen’s street, or should I say, beach? Apparently the FBI employs three forensic geologists and from my own detective work it appears Andrews’ books are much more popular in the US than in Europe. But if you fancy checking out the Em Hansen mystery series there are quite a few to read:
• A Fall in Denver – 1995
• Mother Nature – 1997
• Only Flesh and Bones – 1998
• Bone Hunter – 1999
• An Eye For Gold – 2000
• Fault Line – 2002
• Killer Dust – 2003
• Earth Colors – 2004
• Dead Dry – 2005
• In Cold Pursuit – 2007
• Rock Bottom, 2012
And while you are on Amazon check out two titles by James McKenna, The Unseen and The Uncounted, both hard edged thrillers; and if you have a mind, please buy one.
Well, it is said, the devil is in the detail, and forensic geologists would agree, but I guess it’s back to work for me. My latest novel The Unwanted should be published this summer.