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.

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Book review: Dava Sobel’s “Longitude”

After reading Douglas Hunter’s book “Half Moon”, of course the next book simply had to be about longitude. Thanks to an impressive BBC television documentary seen a few years ago, the story was more or less familiar. So with the help of the internet, it was not difficult to find the book on which this documentary was partly based.

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Book review: De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts – what really caused their deaths?

It’s a book for fans of tv series like “Crime Scene Investigation” with an interest in real, historic cases and able to read French at at least average level. For unfortunately enough, dr Jacques Deblauwe’s “De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts?” is unavailable in English.

I came across this pocket in one of my favourite Brussels’ bookshops: Tropismes. If you stroll through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels, don’t forget to visit this shop – even if only to admire its ceiling. It mainly stocks French and Belgian books, but there is a small English section as well.

de quoiThe nasty looking individual staring at me with fish-eyes from the book-cover, turned out to be the reconstructed head of Robespierrre. His death is discussed in chapter twenty-six of twenty-eight. For this highly interesting book goes into twenty-eight cases taken from French history. Using modern technologies and recent scientific developments, events leading to each person’s death are discussed. En route, legends are dispelled and truths revealed.

The first case dates from 1193. The Danish princess Ingeborg, just 18 years old and unable to speak any French, marries widowed King Philip II. Historic documents report that witnesses noticed something was very wrong the day after the wedding. Sure enough, the king accuses his wife of witchcraft. Ingeborg will spend over twenty years locked away in convents – through no fault of hers.

The last case deals with the birth and death of Napoleon’s son. The Duke of Reichstadt is raised in Vienna and suffers from “a weak chest”. His case is one of many which make one shudder at the kind of “treatments” doctors came up with. After reading this book, you realise how much medical science has improved, since relics and prayers were the only option when one fell ill.

Some cases are sad, like Queen Joan of France‘s story. Others are upsetting, like the case of Agnes Sorel, “La Damoyselle de Beaulté”. She became the first officially recognized French royal mistress. At her death, rumours started she was poisoned, either by her royal lover who was already falling in love with her cousin, or by his son the crown prince who hated Agnes.

It turns out Agnes Sorel died of a mercury overdose. It may have been an accident, for like many medieval people, Agnes suffered from worms and mercury was used as a remedy. Or mercury was used to ease a difficult birth. On the other hand, the rumours which started to circulate directly after her death may have been true and she was murdered. A portrait of Agnes can be admired in Antwerp.

Another painting, at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, shows murdered Jean-Paul Marat in his bath tub. It’s known who knifed him, so in this case the questions are: how could he bleed to death so quickly and why was he in his tub? For even by contemporary standards, he was a notoriously filthy and extremely dirty person.

As the conclusion of this chapter states: “… la reception de Charlotte Corday dans la bagnoire, et l’angle ideal pour le poignard, cascade de complications inatttendues d’un manque d’hygiéne!” Next time one of the kids refuses to shower or bath, try telling this story.

Cases include kings and queens, mistresses, politicians. There is the suspicious death of Henrietta, sister of Charles the II. There is the disastrous year towards the end of Louis XIV reign, when four crown princes died one after the other. Did Josephine de Beauharnais really die of a cold? What about the last Templars’ curse? In the latter case, it turns out  history was rewritten to create this legend.

This book is not only a fascinating read for those interested in pathology. It deals with history, while each chapter reads like a short detective story. Each case is brought to life by quotes and descriptions from official documents, eye-witness accounts, diaries, letters. Most chapters are short and can be read independently. This enables you to dip in and out of the book. Technicalities and horrid details don’t take up most pages of each story. Moreover, if you’re highly squeamish, these are easy to skip. The style is crisp and to the point, so: a thoroughly fascinating French book!

“De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts?”, Dr Jacques Deblauwe, 420 pp, 1st edition published by Pygmalion in 2013. This edition published in 2015 by Tallandier, Paris.

Additional information:
Tropismes website to order books and check their events
French interview with dr Deblauwe about this book

 

How to create community tension and blow up community cohesion

There you are: living in a quiet backwater of England. It’s a few weeks before England’s secret services get rapped across their claws by their own watchdog, because a few of their activities are in breach of Human Rights.

It may be a backwater, but of course, you know what happens in the rest of the world. You’re shocked by recent events in Paris. You hear the stricken magazine will print a special issue.

Extra copies will be dispatched throughout the EU, including your country. Charlie Hebdo’s commemorative issue will be available at the local post office and newsagent in your peaceful Sleepy Hollow.

And then it turns into a nightmare. For your friendly Bobbies lean on the local newsagent and post office. The Boys in Blue order them to jot down personal info of every person who dares buy the commemorative Charlie Hebdo issue.

The shop owners are blackmailed into complying with this Stasi-like order. They’re told it’s all “in the name of community cohesion”. They’re told it’s an act of “vigilance”. These law-abiding citizens help “assess community tensions”.

You think I’m fibbing? You think I’m pulling your leg?
The victims thought it was a hoax as well.

There are at least four people in Wiltshire, who recently received an apology from their police force. Police confirmed they had deleted names and addresses of all buyers of the commemorative Charlie Hebdo issue from police databases.

So in theory, these buyers of Charlie Hebdo are no longer registered as criminals or terrorists. For after the post office and newsagent closed, police collected their lists and entered the collected personal info with an accompanying note in police crime and intelligence databases.

At first, the victims were totally unaware of what had happened. But then, one of the victims – well into her seventies – , wrote a letter to the Guardian. What had occurred in Wiltshire became public and only then did police delete “the accompanying intelligence note”.

And only after journalists of the Guardian and Independent started asking questions, did Wiltshire police dispatch an apology and stated the gathered information had been deleted. As if dispatching an apology after such acts, takes the sting out of created community tensions. As if such police behaviour improved community cohesion.

I’m highly sceptical. As my former IT colleagues used to crow gleefully in such cases: “Yeah, sure: deleted from their police system and databases. Oh – oopsie, forgot: not from the database exports accidentally filed on USB sticks or illegally burned on DVDS; or spinning on a family member server ; nor from the daily and weekly and monthly backups. Cheers!”

For the complete story:
Guardian UK Police forces and Charlie Hebdo buyers
Guardian UK Police Force apologises
Independent Police officer asks details Charlie Hebdo buyers

jesuischarley2

Not exactly the crime of the year, but

It will probably not go down as the crime of 2014. But after reading this, you may rank it among the “2014 nice tries”.

Yesterday evening, a friend and I were sitting in front of the telly, each having a Medium MacD meal. Telly was on and a Dutch news broadcast started. As they clone their broadcasts from CNN or the BBC, it started with appetizers before the actual broadcast.

My friend and I looked at each other with our mouths full of Quarter Pounder or MacChick. What was that first appetizer? Had we heard it right? No – surely it was a mistake? Nah, it must have been a joke! Friend turned up the volume and we waited for the first news item.

No mistake: an IT system engineer working for Dutch police had copied their most secret, triple-whatever-secured-data and “temporarily” parked it on his or her family member’s server. There the data had sat for an unspecified period of time, with free access for anyone using search engines like Google, Yahoo, whatever.

It’s difficult to gawp with your mouth full of Quarter Pounder or MacChick. My friend nearly choked on the Quarter. I swallowed a piece of Chick so fast, I needed to slosh a helping of Sprite after it. Clean forgot about the ice cubes.

We both worked in ICT for decades. We found this porker hard to believe. But the broadcast continued with a reporter feeding more details.

The data on the family member’s server had included private information like secret telephone numbers, addresses, names, mobile phone numbers of policemen, top lawyers, justice department and ministry officials and staff, informers, under-cover men and women, suspected jihadists, terrorists, top-secret information about organised crime and criminal organisations, complete files with all details of murder and other cases, names and information of secret departments which officially do not even exist, and so on.

Two CEOs from IT companies were interviewed to comment on this topic – as nobody remotely related to police were available (or willing) to comment. The two blathered about data, data bases, software and systems nowadays being so protected by security measures and protocols, that employees simply can’t do their work anymore. So you ask a friendly system engineer to park the data you need on a server. Common practise.

Common practise?! Amay! These two bright-lights were beyond belief! My friend and I started to snigger, then laugh out loud.

We both used to develop software and worked with system engineers, before quitting the IT field. During testing, upgrading, updating, implementing, or maintenance, perhaps occasionally a copy of sensitive data might be placed on a back-up server, but that server would and should be part of the IT department’s secure network. How did the family server hook up to the secure network?

Moreover: you don’t just park any company or client data on your granny’s, young Bill’s, or cousin Steve’s server! That is illegal. Surely this had been hammered into the employee or external consultant?

The journalist stressed words like “accidental”, “mistake”. Someone had been working hard on damage control. The journalist had lapped everything up. He reassured the camera the data had been removed from the family server. The system engineer had been sent home to await procedures. Mr journalist had no idea how long the secret and sensitive data had been parked on that server. (Hours, days, months, years?)

The anchor woman asked if any measures were being taken to ensure those who needed protection would be safe. Nah, it was wait and see if anything happened. But of course, he continued reassuringly, with the web you never know if all traces are erased.

While my friend gulped down a medium coke and hurried for the door – forgetting all about French fries, I thought “Mistake my eye!”

Hope it’s not someone I know and worked with. All traces erased! Ever tried to get Google to obliterate anything? But this certainly beats Wiki Leaks and Snowden.

The door slammed shut. My friend was in a hurry to reach home and a computer with a secure internet connection, to see what traces of this “accident” had been left on the www for all and sundry to read.

Book review: “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” by Anne Hart

As Sophie Hannah and Harper Collins resurrected Hercule Poirot from the grave (see “The Monogram Murders”), I decided to read up on Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective. Actually, I was searching my library for the “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. For this is Agatha Christie’s first detective novel which features Hercule Poirot. It was followed by over thirty more thrillers and short stories in which he solves mysteries and murders.

Hard to believe, but my public library did not have a copy of “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. I was dreadfully disappointed. However, as it does not use your average and useful browser to locate reading matter, but a limited-edition one which coughs up books, music, newspaper articles and anything which can be read using associations – by sheer accident, I found it did have a copy of a Poirot biography!

Yes, there cannot be that many invented characters around which actually have an official biography, but Poirot is one of them. So intrigued, I headed for the right floor, department, sub-department, book cases and after browsing several shelves, I finally found what I was looking for. Of course, this treasure was carted off home to be read as fast as I could.

Contrary to Sophie Hannah’s “The Monogram Murders”, the biography by Anne Hart proofed to be an excellent and entertaining read. It not only contains lots of information about Hercule Poirot. It also gives its reader answers to questions such as: “What ever happened to Captain Hastings?” – in case, like me, you were wondering about this. Or did you know that Poirot retired twice? And where exactly and what he did for a living while retired? Of course, this funny biography also contains some information about his family, career, likes and dislikes, and not to forget: his great love!

So if you are a true – or just interested – Hercule Poirot fan, this biography by Anne Hart might be an interesting read to become more acquainted with this fabulous character and his creator, and all the novels and short stories he features in.

“Agatha Christie’s Poirot; the life and times of Hercule Poirot” by Anne Hart, Pavilion, 1990
This and later editions of the book are still available through Amazon.

 

Laptop thefts 12: innocent witness, treated as suspect

While the gaffer paid off his 2012 fine (see part 11), Saturday’s thug arrived (see part 5). Late of course, expecting me to shake hands, bleating he was bitterly disappointed I refused. It never was and never will be my custom, to shake hands with a policeman who used pressure to make me confess to something I was and am totally innocent of.

Instead, I started to complain loudly about Saturday evening. After all: now I had the gaffer and his uniformed lackeys as witnesses. So thug told me to shut up. He warned a colleague and walked me to interview room 2.

He was not interviewing me as an innocent witness, but as a suspect. He wanted to be able to use the statement against me. According to him, me shutting windows so window cleaners were able to do their job and sewing innocently in my room on my own, was highly suspect behaviour. (See part 1) A few sneers about no lawyer being present followed.

Friends and acquaintances had advised me to stick to a mantra and use my right to remain silent. Quite a few had a legal background; some working for national courts, others for international ones, or Interpol and such. They deemed thug incompetent and unprofessional. So it was mantra unless charged, accused, arrested. In that case, my situation not only changed: I would be entitled to free legal aid. They had also told me to try find out who actually accused me.

So I responded to each question with the mantra or a variation: “I have nothing to do with any laptop and/or camera theft. I am not involved in anything. I am totally innocent. I have the right to remain silent”.

I learned who accused me: the victim. I also learned, thug had not bothered to check if there had been an earlier camera thefts from the same person, the same room, involving other window cleaners – or whoever the victim had accused at that time. Provided she had reported that earlier theft of which I had some vague recollection. (See part 6).

I didn’t know whom or what to believe. Both victim and police thug had lied to me before. I only knew I was totally innocent. But if she was now accusing me whereas I was innocent, I might have a case against her. For making false accusations against someone, or slander a person, is illegal.

Thug decided to just copy and paste my mantra to his questions.
He continued with his usual intimidation.
Questions ranged from what time I leave the house, how late I return, to a few actually related to the case of the missing laptop – and camera. (See part 3)

After about 30 minutes, thug had had enough. He claimed I had blown my chances.
He speculated the prosecutor was going to take a dim view of my behaviour.
Fuming I said: “So what?”
This nettled thug.
However, friends had already told me, it was unlikely things would get that far. There was no proof, I was an innocent witness, any prosecutor would throw the case out.
I had totally had it with being treated like the accused, while being totally innocent.

Thug pushed a button and left the room to collect the printed statement.
Ah – even his computer, the printer, the software had had enough.
Something went wrong and thug had to reprint.
He left the room again, came back, and shoved the paperwork towards me ordering to read and sign it.

I got my own pen and … noticed my answer to his 2nd question was already wrong.
So as a teacher, I routinely struck a fat line through it.

Thug went bananas.
According to him, one is not allowed to scratch through a statement – even if it contains faulty or fibbed police answers.
Thug left to collect a third print from the printer.
I know it’s childish, but I suspected everything in the room was being recorded – though I had not given any permission.
But if I’m right, my rude middle finger gesture is on record.

The new print was shoved my way. By then, I had asked for a copy of my statement, but been told I could not have one, as only lawyers were allowed access to statements.
So I had notebook and pen ready and started writing.

Thug went berserk! According to him, copying out a whole statement was illegal.
I was not interested in copying out three A-4 pages full of my mantra.
I jotted down the unique data above my statement, so a lawyer might lift my statement even faster out of the system, if necessary.

On rereading the statement, I noticed my mantra had been copied correctly about 12 times out of 14. Not wanting to risk being molested by thug, I signed anyway.
In case I was charged, arrested, held – using this statement – I would automatically get free legal aid. Then I could talk things over with a lawyer and retract any earlier statements, jog my memory, add, change – whatever.

Of course, my signature was at the top of the otherwise empty third page. Or as I had been told by former colleagues: so lots of fancy things might happen to a statement. Like for example: pages being added, pages being removed.
With hindsight, I should have signed not only the third, but also the first and second page and included the page numbers in my signature on each single page.

Regardless: thug continued stating I was discrediting my case. What case?
I was an innocent witness and his case was based on false accusations by the victim and police.
So I whined if he was going to hold me, charge me, arrest me – so I could get free legal aid and if not: I was free to go. Grabbing my bags, I went for the door …

WRONG! Thug had kept the best bit for the last: he said the last step of any interview was fingerprints and a mug shot.

WRONG! I had accidentally checked this and been told police had no legal right whatsoever to ask for fingerprints, DNA, mug shot – whatever – of me.

So I flatly refused and stalked out of the room with thug sputtering and trying to intimidate and terrorise me some more: it was not the last I had seen of him, I blew my chance to cooperate, now police would get my prints and pic whenever it suited them.

So by using my legal rights as an innocent witness, by not caving in under threats, by not incriminating myself, by not getting myself arrested for what might have been a theft or a scam done by someone else … I had ensured I would be in for more harassment and pestering by police.

When I stalked past the counter, the gaffer had long left.
I sincerely prayed, Gaffer had laundered money and had had the last laugh.

Laptop thefts 11: at the police station

At the police station, two men in swimming trunks wearing flip-flops were hanging on the left part of the counter. Behind the counter, an uniformed policewoman was dealing with them. In front of the right part of the counter was parked a dark-red scoot-mobile, containing a gaffer and lots of plastic bags.

The flip-flop business showed off their muscles and tattoos to the blond by striking poses. The gaffer was sagging in his scoot, looking like he was either already drunk or busy dying. He hardly reached up halfway the counter. He was involved in a lengthy discussion with a policeman.

Police did a lot of talking and explaining in the air.
Gaffer now and then mumbled a response to a bag.

I made a crowd. So an uniformed policeman who had obviously been hiding behind a glass panelled wall, shifted his chair from “thinking mode” into upright mode. He stood up, disappeared from sight, reappeared, opened a door, and went to the right hand side of the counter.
Gaffer was sagging even more over the plastic bags and against that part of the counter.

The policeman joined the right-hand discussion, by stretching over the counter and talking down to the gaffer, who was now close to hanging horizontally over his bags and scoot.
Gaffer seemed barely conscious, but still muttered.

The police man stretched some more, to explain something down the depth to where gaffer was hanging. Gaffer told his plastic bag: “No, it’s not true!”

The policeman decided it might look client-unfriendly, if the lot of them continued talking down to the gaffer with an audience present. So he walked round the counter and tried to explain some more at ground floor level.

A dark-haired police woman joined the right side of the counter.
The police force claimed something. Gaffer denied it. I waited.

After a while, one policeman gave up and walked back to his place of authority, behind the counter.

The tattoos had flip-flopped out of the station and the blond policewoman joined the discussion.
Gaffer claimed he had paid. Force denied: it was logged in their system.
Gaffer was pre-system, so muttered another denial to his bag and said he’d go. Police said they were keeping him, till he’d paid the money.

Gaffer was getting nowhere, so changed tactics and said he didn’t remember. Force said it dated from 2012.
Gaffer kind of wheezy rattled.

One policeman had had enough. His colleagues ought to be able to deal with this.
He barked what I wanted. I handed over my ID and “invitation”.
They were inspected, checked, handed back.
I was told to sit and wait for my police thug (see part 5), right next to Gaffer’s scoot.

Force said he’d not paid a 2012 fine of about 500 Euro.
Gaffer said he had no money.
Apart from his scoot, he certainly looked the part.

Gaffer repeated he had no money. Force said they couldn’t let him go.
Gaffer changed tactics again: he had some money. Force asked how much.
Gaffer said he had 400 Euro. Force answered they needed the whole amount.
Gaffer claimed he had 450 Euro. Force repeated they couldn’t release him till all was paid.
Gaffer said he might have to go home to get more money. Force said he couldn’t leave the station.
Gaffer said he wanted a receipt. Force said he could use his bank card.

Gaffer seemed to cave in. He said he had the money.
Force started to rummage behind the counter for a machine to process bank payments.

Gaffer said he didn’t trust banks. Force wondered aloud, how he was going to cough up the money.
Gaffer said he had more than enough. Force remained sceptical.

Gaffer – sitting very upright, sober and quite perky in his scoot – said he had the complete sum, in cash, in one of his plastic bags – and he demanded a receipt, for he was sure his 2012 fine would otherwise remain “unpaid” in the system.
He demanded proof of payment!

Three of the force remained baffled behind the counter.
The other one zoomed round it, knelt right next to the scoot, because Gaffer started pulling out bank notes from a plastic bag.

Silently, I applauded Gaffer.
He’d kept at least three police officers totally occupied with his spiel.

Idly I wondered, if the cash money would be white, grey, or black.
Not for one moment did I doubt, Gaffer was perfectly capable of using a police station to launder money.