Vol. 4  Iss. 6
The Chemical Educator 
1999 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 

ISSN 1430-4171
S 1430-4171(99) 06344-9 

Book Review  

Crime Scene to Court: The Essentials of Forensic Science

 Reviewed by
Todd Whitcombe
Chemistry Department, University of Northern British Columbia
3333 University Way, Prince George, Canada


Crime Scene to Court: The Essentials of Forensic Science. Edited by Peter White. The Royal Society of Chemistry: Cambridge, UK. 1998. ISBN 0-85404-539-2. Softcover, xxiv + 360 pp. Price 19.95 pounds.


When I was much younger than I am now, I read the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For months I lived and breathed Sherlock Holmes, trying to learn the tricks of the trade and understand the basis of being a good detective. After all, a crime scene can inform only if you know what you are looking for. Is the criminal left or right handed? What color is his or her hair? For that matter, is the criminal male or female? Clues, such as the striking pattern of a chisel used to open a window and the relative height of the chisel marks, can tell a detective a great deal.

It is, of course, unrealistic to expect a book on the "Essentials of Forensic Science" to match the feats of the great detective. This is not a literary piece and is not written to entertain the reader. Indeed, it is written for the .... well, that is the problem that I had with this book. I could never understand who the audience was supposed to be. In the preface, the editor lists prospective readers: the general public with an interest in forensics, police, post- and undergraduate forensic science and law students, forensic scientists and crime scene examiners starting their careers, and people who are not connected with a forensic profession but appear as expert witnesses. Whew! That is a remarkably broad and diverse group of people and I must add that I don't belong to any of these groups, except maybe the first one. But in trying to appeal to and satisfy the knowledge demands of this group, the authors, in my opinion, fail to satisfy the needs of any of them. For example, take the description of infrared spectroscopy:

"With this technique, individual fibre fragments are squashed into a film through which infrared light is passed. The ways in which the chemical structure of the film reacts with the infrared light is ... recorded in the form of a printed graph in which the various peaks can be used to determine the chemical identity of the material."

I have absolutely no doubt that the contributor who wrote this description understands infrared spectroscopy. But for whom is it written? For the forensic scientist, this strikes me as a very poor explanation of both the intricacies of the method and the diversity of the results that can be obtained, along with its broad applicability. If it is written for the lawyer or the lay public, what understanding have they gained by reading it? Only that the technique can identify various materials. But there is nothing to assure us that it truly can do so, other than the expert opinion of the author.

This is just one example, but one that typifies the treatment of detail in many chapters. Either I want to know a lot more or a lot less, but I don't want to be stranded in the middle! This inability to properly identify a target audience persists throughout the book. The book might be expanded with discussions of real cases with real evidence and real descriptions. It might be contracted to a much simpler publication. In its present form, though, it serves none of its possible audiences even adequately.

While this book represents a good attempt to explain a complex subject, it needs to focus much more clearly on an intended audience. The expertise that the various authors bring to bear in their respective chapters could then be truly appreciated.