CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 9 . . . . January 4, 2002
Anyone who thinks that police work is jam-packed with glamour and excitement hasn't spent a lot of time with Forensic Identification officers, Uncle Joe said. These officers sometimes seem as exciting as accountants or librarians. They're a place-for-everything-and everything-in-its-place kind of people. They can spend hours, even days, picking through a crime scene looking for evidence. They record every piece of evidence they find and everything they do to it. It's slow, careful work - like cutting a couple of acres of grass with a pair of nail scissors. If Forensic Identification officers do their work well, they can clinch a case. If they mess up, the result can be one more bad guy on the streets. Officer Durning was the Identification officer in charge of the Scarr crime scene. He was a methodical man who worked according to a theory developed in 1920 by French criminologist Edmond Locard. Locard's theory was that every contact leaves a trace. Every time one object comes into contact with another object, it takes something from that object or leaves something behind. Think of cat hairs clinging to your pants. Or the marks your fingers leave on a clean glass. Or the impressions your boots make when you walk in snow or on damp ground. Officer Durning believed that physical evidence is the most powerful type of evidence. Unlike eyewitness identifications and witness statements, physical evidence is unaffected by emotion, prejudice or personal impressions. If it's carefully collected, properly stored and well documented, physical evidence never forgets. It doesn't take sides. And it doesn't lie. (p.32-33)
Body, Crime, Suspect: How a Murder Investigation Really Works recreates the step-by-step criminal and judicial proceedings that would, in fact, transpire from the time a victim's body is discovered to the time of the accused's conviction. However, in place of the textbookishly "flat," declarative style one might expect of traditional non-fiction on this topic, Norah McClintock writes a fictional story within a story scheme, choosing for her narrator an inquisitive young person of indeterminable sex and age named "Chris." Chris's parents have sent him (her?) on a few days ahead of them to visit Uncle Joe over the Christmas holidays. As a result of a snowstorm that contrives to keep Uncle Joe and Chris inside the cottage, they become well-enough acquainted for Chris to learn that his uncle played a role in solving the murder of popular children's author Edward Scarr. When Chris presses Uncle Joe for more information about the investigation, the text takes a noticeable turn: a bolded ellipsis separates first-person narration that precedes it from the combination second- and third-person narration that follows. The symbol occurs at regular intervals thereafter, marking transitions from direct speech -- for e.g., Chris's and Uncle Joe's dialogue, which begins each of the seventeen chapters -- to indirect speech -- those portions where Chris recounts what "Uncle Joe said." Frequently chapters conclude with paragraphs formatted in a font unlike that of the surrounding text, complete with their own headings. The difference in appearance suggests that these paragraphs originate from a "voice" not Chris', a voice with a more didactic intent. These sections showcase the three-time Arthur Ellis Award-winning McClintock's extensive research into murder investigations, and it is here that readers discover the various checklists and procedural details, such as their legal rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (p. 114), or the assortment of tools Identification Officers must tote with them to the crime scene: crayons alongside claw hammers and cameras, to name only three items (p. 45-47). Paul McCusker's black and white illustrations help the reader to visually grasp concepts that are more difficult to understand given only verbal descriptions, such as the layout of the crime scene, or how a gun's barrel impresses specific markings upon a bullet, for instance.
Although the characters of Chris and Uncle Joe are two-dimensional, and sometimes predictable, they serve a particular purpose for the author. For example, Chris's first-person narration invites the reader to share his interest in Uncle Joe's story, while the third-person narration of a past murder imposes an emotional distancing of sorts upon readers, fixing them at a safe remove from the crime. Uncle Joe's professional detachment, his ability to focus on the task at hand, no matter how mundane, be it chopping firewood or mixing pancake batter, also acts as a buffer between crime and reader; moreover, it keeps Chris - and the reader, by extension, in suspense for it defers closure. Additionally, the author charges Uncle Joe with tempering Chris's tendency to jump to conclusions. Perhaps the most important lesson Chris learns is that there is no "happy ending" in a murder case, since both the victim's family and the accused's suffer irreparable loss.
Keenly aware that all too often Canadians' expectations of murder investigations and trials are shaped to a large degree by American TV shows, Body, Crime, Suspect aims to remedy that gross oversight. The book emphasizes a number of key ways in which Canada's judicial system differs from that of the United States: for one thing, in Canada a person is "presumed innocent until proven guilty," unlike the reverse in the United States (p. 118). Second, whereas the American system allows the accused to post bail, a Canadian court may ask for surety (p. 120). A third major difference is that an accused in Canada is entitled to an impartial jury, not the favourable jury of the United States (p. 133). However, McClintock differentiates practices not just between nations, but amongst the provinces and territories as well, as becomes evident when she distinguishes the role of coroner from that of medical examiner (p. 28-30).
In choosing an unlikely narrator and narrative structure, McClintock invigorates her subject without sacrificing the methodical attention to detail that it demands. While readers of various ages might enjoy this book, it is designed to appeal to young adults in particular, and one can imagine that it would prove useful in sparking interest in, and discussion of, Canada's criminal and judicial system at a junior high level. Body, Crime, Suspect includes an index and end notes, the latter formatted in a shade of gray superscript within the text, which renders them visible but more inobtrusive than traditional black markings. The only criticism here is that the book's pages are made up of not-so-very durable newsprint quality paper, which no doubt accounts for its reasonable price; however, keeping in mind Locard's theory in the excerpt above, I predict that any paperback copy of Body, Crime, Suspect is bound to exhibit multiple traces of contact before too long.
Nepean, ON's Julie Chychota enjoyed her fair share of Agatha Christies as a teenager.
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