Book review: “Silent Witnesses” by Nigel McCrery

If you are familiar with the tv series “Silent Witness”, you know what this book is about. If not, its subtitle tells you this is a short history of forensic science. The book’s author is a former policeman who also created the tv series in 1996, which – with changes in cast – is still running.

As is so often the case, this book is even more fascinating than the tv series. No problem finishing this in a long weekend: it’s truly unputdownable. It not only contains historical facts, easy to book cover 1understand science, real cases. It also describes developments right up to the present.

Nigel McCrery’s book is dedicated to the person, on whom the tv series forensic pathologist Sam Ryan is based. Many known and lesser known detectives, policemen, doctors, criminologists, scientists, ordinary people and criminals occur throughout the book. Its introduction starts with a case from 1983 which is solved using forensic science.

The introduction is followed by seven chapters:

  • Identity
  • Ballistics
  • Blood
  • Trace Evidence
  • The Body
  • Poison
  • DNA

Cases, as well as scientific developments,  are taken from the US and Europe. Solutions sometimes occur too late, to correct miscarriages and save an innocent person. Occasionally, a wrong conviction is overturned just in time, thanks to scientific progress. But in a few examples, the criminals walk free.

In chapter six, as in all the other chapters, cases discussed range from the renaissance and 17th century to the present day. As mr McCrery mentions, the 19th century seems to have abounded with poisoning cases. The French “Affaire des Poisons”, which involved most of Louis XIV’s court including his mistress Madame de Montespan, is skipped. But there are plenty other cases, including two recent ones. One is the case of Georgi Markov. The other the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Of course, thanks to a non-cooperative Russia, the Litvinenko case is one of the cases where criminals get away with murder.

Does this book have any flaws? Well yes. For a start, a good proof reader would have greatly helped. Certain patterns or sentence constructions are sometimes repeated in an irritating manner. There are odd sentence constructions. Sometimes, the sequence in which events are told, are slightly puzzling. Regardless, the stories are so fascinating, a reader just continues reading to know what happens next.

An example can be found in the last chapter. The Colette Aram case is the first one discussed to illustrate the developments in DNA research. Mr McCrery worked on the case. It also was one of the first cases, shown in the first broadcast of the BBC’s Crimewatch series. This program still runs, while its concept has been “exported” to various countries. To cite from the book:

On 7 June 1984, the case became the first ever to be featured on the now long-running BBC crime show Crimewatch, a fact … they seemed no nearer to actually capturing the killer.
On 17 November 1983, the incident room received a letter bragging about de murder.
(page 226)

If at all noticed, it makes the reader wonder and then presume the letter was probably received about a month after the murder and not several months after the Crimewatch broadcast. A hiccup in the reading-adventure, but not a full stop preventing the reader from wanting to know how the case was solved. If you are also unfamiliar with it: it took decades and improved DNA tests, for the murderer to be traced and only thanks to a  family member committing an offence.

Like the other chapters, the one on DNA contains historic cases. One of these concerns a Russian murder. The other a body found in a parking lot in 2013. A case you may already have forgotten.

The parking lot covered grounds where once a small church had stood. What made it all so interesting was, that some historic sources mentioned the body of Richard III was burried in this small church after the Battle of Bosworth Field. In 2013, most papers reported the story, but most did not mention the horrific wounds the skeleton had. “… the skeleton had 11 wounds, eight of them to the skull, clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting he had lost his helmet.” or as a contemporary Tudor poet put it: “… killed the boar, shaved his head“. Occasionally, things do get gruesome.

Some of the book’s paragraphs are not suitable for the squeamish or those like me, who are capable of fainting when blood is mentioned – even on paper. But just skip a few lines and continue reading this book full of detective stories and historic accounts. It’s not only a suitable read for lovers of history, or true crime. It is one of those must-reads for thriller authors and crime writers.

“Silent Witnesses, a History of Forensic Science”, Nigel McCrery, hard cover, pp 265, Random House Books, 2013
Guardian Litvinenko case


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