Monday, March 9, 2015

Lisa Scottoline, The Spark

I remember stopping dead in my tracks as I passed through a bookstore decades back.  Lisa Scottoline on the shelves.  I had gone to law school with Lisa, been on the University of Pennsylvania Law Review together.  We clerked in the same federal courthouse in Philadelphia, windows looking out on Independence Hall.

She's an author!  Wow, and Edgar Award winning author.  A New York Times Best Seller.

I bought the book and read it straight through.  It was a Philadelphia I knew, voices I could hear.  A plot that I wish I had thought of...even though I was doing no writing at the time, except legal briefs and motions.

Ever since then I wanted to tell the stories I learned and imagined as I plied my craft as prosecutor and defense lawyer.

I picked up other Scottolines over the years.  They kept coming at an impressive pace. The dialogue always jumped off the page.  I was there hearing these Philadelphians, the cynical lawyer, the impatient judge.  And wondering what was coming next.

So I chipped away at my stories.  I won some awards.  But not until now did I get the break:  an agent, then a three-book contract.  I'm going to be not just a writer.  I'm going to be an author.

I contacted Lisa, thirty-three, thirty-four years after I last saw her, probably in the hallways of the federal courthouse where we had worked together.  She's now a giant in the trade. She was elected president of Mystery Writers of America in 2011.   I've seen her novels and books-on-tape in libraries, airports and bookstores on both ends of the continent.  I'm in a B&B in Yorkshire during a walk across England.  She's there on the shelf by the coal fire.

I thanked her for being the spark.

She congratulated me and asked if I still smoked.  Over three decades later and she was concerned.

Lisa hasn't changed.  Still a warm, people-loving person.  How she can write so many stories about murder, deceit, and dishonesty and retain those fine qualities is a wonder.

I said it in my e-mail.  I'll say it here:  Thanks, Lisa Scottoline.  I never would have tried writing a book if I hadn't first read yours. 

Oh, and I quit smoking before I got out of law school. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Fun with Forensics

What makes forensic science in telling the story of crime detection compelling?  Is it the technology, advances in instrumentation, computer breakthroughs, what?

I think it is always the people, not the machines or the math or the microbes that grab people when forensic science takes the stage as a character in an unfolding story.

Consider Forensic FilesI can watch this show for hours on end and not get bored.  My wife does.  It scares me a little.

Sometimes the technology is incomprehensible, though the show does a great job dumbing it down to a manageable state.  Occasionally one forensic advance follows another,  scientific knowledge accelerating exponentially, ensnaring a criminal who escaped during previous dark ages.

If it were a lecture on the subject, it would be boring.

It is fascinating because (1) it is being done in aid of capturing very bad people and (2) human determination, creativity, intuition and sometimes raw luck are what drives the application of cutting edge technology. 

Who would come up with something like that?

That darned detective never quit.  What kept her going?  

How did she see what everybody else missed?

We may be further along a hundred plus years later than Sherlock Holmes in our forensic acumen, but the same insight applied to Arthur Conan Doyle's books.  We were fascinated with the experiments, the technical discoveries, the treatment of microscopic evidence because we were fascinated by Sherlock Holmes.  If we were not pulled into his pursuit of a villain, his idiosyncracies, his brilliant madness we wouldn't care as much about threads of tobacco or stains on an index finger.

Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe...Harry Bosch, Kay Scarpetta.  Same thing.

They make forensics interesting.  It's not the other way around.

Epithelial cells can't do much for a lifeless story even if they do contain the solution to a crime.

My stories are heavy on forensic analysis of crime scenes and evidence.  But they are foremost character driven.  Detective Denise Aragon may not even understand the technology that breaks a mystery open, but she had the determination to keep bugging people with scientific expertise she will never possess.  She had the courage to go out and get the evidence, to break a few laws, if that's what it took, so the laws of science could work for justice.

Forensic science in mystery/crime/thriller novels (I don't pretend to understand the limits and definitions of each category) also runs the danger of serving as a deus ex machina, stepping up to supernaturally knot all lose ends and bring a resolution to the chaos and disaster that has overwhelmed mere humans.  Just because it is forensic science, and not a mysterious new character who descends from the heavens in the nick of time, doesn't make this literary device any more acceptable.

There's a real risk with forensic science serving as "god out of the machine" because in real life it so often plays that very role.  Crimes once thought unsolvable suddenly do open up because out of nowhere there's a scientific breakthrough.

But in telling the story it will only be a focus on the human being employing that new technology that makes the story worth reading.

One other temptation with forensic technology in mystery/crime/thriller novels is to make something up that solves the crime.   

Hey, Detective, I was fiddling around with my nuclear collider, and, voila!, I found a way to nail the bastard. 

It would be cheating.  Characters in stories can be cheaters.  Authors can't.

I read scientific papers and visit blogs like D.P. Lyle's The Writer's Forensic Blog for ideas or a check on a runaway imagination.  I think being true to the science makes for better writing and a better story.

For the book currently in progress I'm learning about biology, botany, and computer science so that my detectives can follow a trail as real and true as their characters.

It makes forensics fun.