The Queen of Forensic Science

From The Wall Street Journal:

I’ve long been a sucker for that crime-fiction stereotype, the old lady sleuth who defies social expectations by being clever and fearless. The nosy Miss Marple, the curious Jessica Fletcher, the cozy Miss Maud Silver—they all have in common an independence, a kind of postmenopausal unflappability and an infinite capacity to upend the assumptions of condescending cops and criminals. So it was with great delight that I met the real thing in the pages of Patricia Wiltshire’s fascinating memoir “The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace.”

Ms. Wiltshire, also known as the queen of forensic science, also known as the snot lady for her unique retrieval of microscopic evidence from the nasal cavities of the dead, is a petite, fastidious septuagenarian, a lover of cats, Baroque music and sloe gin who is arguably the U.K.’s premier forensic ecologist-botanist-palynologist. (Palynology is the “study of dust,” or microscopic organic particulates.) In other words, she collects and analyzes the pollen granules and fungal spores that are carried out of, or into, crime scenes on killers’ shoes, clothes, shovels and gas pedals, and helps police figure out the how, what and wheres of a crime. “We all leave our marks on the environment,” she writes, “but the environment leaves its marks on us too.”

Her technique, once the samples are collected and identified in processes she describes as sometimes “mind-blowingly tedious,” is to re-create in her mind the vegetation at the crime scene—forest or meadow, backyard or farm—and from it extrapolate the nature of the soil, the shade, the sun. She can determine the maturity of trees based on pollen findings—spruce, for example, don’t produce pollen until they are 40—and, with the help of criminal-behavior profiles (like the fact that murderers tend not to carry corpses much more than 100 yards) and British flora-distribution maps, she can conceptualize the terrain where a body might be found or where a killer was. Each square foot of landscape, she notes, is unique, like a fingerprint.

Ms. Wiltshire is quite good at this re-creation. She has aided detectives in almost 300 cases, from cracking the “Jigsaw” murder—where she helped connect the dismembered and widely distributed body parts of the victim to a killer couple—to nailing Chinese triad assassins, and even to catching a team of illegal badger cullers by the soil traces left on their lethal spades. Painting a picture based on myriad details is what Ms. Wiltshire does, and she does it again in this lively profile of her work and personality.

. . . .

A significant percentage of the book is personal history evoking her sickly childhood in a Welsh coal-mining village—where she recuperated in the company of her encyclopedias—her love of science and subsequent academic and professional achievements, the traumatic death of her young daughter and her unintentional career in forensics. A portrait of a prickly, precise and plucky woman emerges, one who can remove a corpse’s face skin as tidily as she maintains her immaculate kitchen; who readily scolds cops who are skeptical of her methods (“after all these years of teaching them,” she sniffs, “they still cannot seem to get their heads around the constraints and requirements of environmental sampling”) and lawyers who challenge her findings in court by suggesting dandelions are found everywhere. “Well, of course they are not,” she writes. This lady in pearls anticipates, with the excitement of “a child who wakes early on Christmas morning,” a trip to a body farm in Knoxville, Tenn., where the rate of human decay is studied. Really, what’s not to love?

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)


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