I was pretty desperate to get to CSI Portsmouth this year. I had to miss the previous one as it clashed with a family event. This time the wretched flu was threatening to derail the day but I managed to feel well enough to go (crashed the next day though!).
The Pyramid Centre in Southsea is a slightly surreal venue, used more for gigs and boxing matches (as J S Law attested to when he confessed that he had boxed there) but it afforded plenty of space for the 100 people who turned up. The morning session was with local author Pauline Rowson (who started CSI Portsmouth), Elly Griffiths – author, Simon Mound – police CSI officer and Jonathan Smith – Forensics expert. It was amazing to have fiction and fact come together and naturally, the talk very quickly turned to TV crime dramas and if they’re realistic or not. Simon and Jonathan did hang their heads slightly in despair but fully recognised that if dramas were true to life, it would be very boring! It can take days if not weeks for results to come through (the average turnaround for a DNA result is five days) so they accepted that some poetic licence is needed. They also pointed out that such dramas often have an effect on jurors in court and are seen as forensic education. Jurors will see forensics as an absolute when they should of course question everything and follow all the evidence.
Pauline and Elly admitted that some scenarios may have to be speeded up a little as they only have a certain number of words to solve the crime in but both do try to keep storylines accurate. Pauline often liaises with Hampshire Police to check facts and for Elly, her husband is an archaeologist – handy as one of her main characters, Ruth Galloway, is a Forensic Archaeologist!
There was lots of discussion about real cases and what forensic officers have to do at a crime scene. A cleaned up scene is particularly tricky and the team have to assess how much they do to look for evidence – lifting carpets, floorboards, pulling apart kitchen cupboards, removing bath panels – it’s all in a day’s work for a CSI officer!
In a sense, TV and film almost glamourize this extremely important and time consuming work. But a vital part of DNA is its use to solve cold cases. Jonathan Smith spoke about the Forensic Science Archive where old evidence is kept and if slides have been preserved with blood or other bodily fluids or hairs with roots have been kept, then it’s possible to extract DNA and possibly solve the crime. And although not all cold cases can be solved, it’s incredible to think that technology today can help to bring justice and closure to families.
As well as the panel, the Hampshire Police Fingerprint Bureau and forensic students from South Downs College had stands, including a mock up of a crime scene with poor ‘Victor’ who is killed on a fairly regular basis.
The afternoon session was a panel with three local authors – William Sutton (chairing), Diana Bretherick and J S Law. The morning session had forensic experts but the afternoon had expertise in bucket loads as well. Diana is a former criminal barrister, now a criminologist lecturing at the University of Portsmouth and James is a former submariner with special expertise in nuclear reactors – pretty impressive experts in their former fields!
Both spoke about their route to publication. Diana won the Good Housekeeping Novel competition and publication flowed on from that. James spoke about the rejections he kept on receiving until someone suggested that he should lose his particularly dark prologue . With that gone it was easier to get an agent but the publisher took a bit longer. ‘Tenacity’, his debut novel, has won critical acclaim not least from Patricia Cornwell and when she suggested he should make a few changes, he didn’t hesitate!
William Sutton asked them a question that had been raised in the morning session about staying authentic to the facts when writing crime. I loved J S Law’ answer – ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!’ – echoing the morning’s response that poetic licence is sometimes needed.
It was interesting to hear about how they write their books – are they plotters or pantsers (write by the seat of your pants without any plotting)? Diana said that she did quite a lot of research and planning but it was definitely J S Law who must win the prize for the greatest plotter! Not only does he know exactly what he’s going to write but he has mini books about each of his main characters (when I say mini – it’s about 40k words – so not so mini!). He admitted that he has quite an obsessive nature and considering his previous job, it’s not surprising that he likes to have things ordered!
It was great to listen to them and my favourite quote came from J S Law – ‘Crime readers don’t like crime, they like justice.’ We also like listening to fantastic authors!
William Sutton finished off the session playing on his ukulele with a little song about the authors and their books. He managed to find lots of rhymes for Tenacity!
A fabulous day in Portsmouth and I hope I can go back next year!
If you want to know more about the authors and their books then:
Pauline Rowson – DI Andy Horton series and a new series about Art Marvik, a former Marine Commando. You can follow Pauline on Twitter @PaulineRowson
Elly Griffiths – Forensic Anthropologist Ruth Galloway series and Stephens & Mephisto series set in 1950s. You can follow Elly on Twitter @ellygriffiths
William Sutton – Campbell Lawless series set in Victorian times. You can follow William on Twitter @WilliamGeorgeQ
Diana Bretherick – Fiction based on real life Italian 19th century criminologist Cesare Lombroso – City of Devils and The Devil’s Daughters. You can follow Diana on Twitter @DianaBretherick
J S Law – Debut novel, ‘Tenacity’ about Dan (Danielle) Lewis, A Royal Navy Investigations Officer. Currently working on the second book. You can follow James on Twitter @JSLawBooks