Showing posts with label forensics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label forensics. Show all posts

11 October 2020

Dr. Obenson: Doctor and Detective


Dr. Ken Obenson is one of only two certified forensic pathologists practicing in New Brunswick, Canada. He holds the distinction of being  first black pathologist certified by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in forensic pathology. 

Although he investigates deaths in deceased of all age groups from babies to adults, it is with the death of babies where, “I often need to apply all the detective skills that I acquired through training and experience. Infants don’t have the usual stigmata of disease or injury unlike adults who tend to have well documented disease histories - and infants can sustain injuries that may not be as obvious at autopsy as adults.”

“My role, in the case of a natural death, is to make sure that I make the best effort to find the explanation for the death so I can allay some of the fears of the family,” Dr. Obenson explains. “When an infant dies, the parents almost always blame themselves. It can be heartbreaking for the parents when we are not  able to  provide a definitive cause of death. Unlike some other practice groups, we don’t use the term SIDS because it is a diagnosis of exclusion. SIDS or not, the cause death is undetermined and this is what they (the parents) worry about. Not just for this baby, but for others they may have in the future.” 

One case he investigated was particularly illuminating. It was the death of an infant who was only a few days old. The CT, X-ray, autopsy, toxicology, microbiology and other examinations found no cause of death. Information gathered by the police, revealed that the baby was visited by its’ large extended family who had all held the baby. On a preliminary examination of slides of the markedly autolyzed tissue that he had sampled at the autopsy Dr. Obenson found evidence of viral infection (suspected to be parvovirus) in one section of liver. Knowing exactly what to look for, he reexamined the slides more closely  and found  further evidence of the infection in several other organs. 

Because he was able to determine that death was the result of a viral infection, Dr. Obenson was able to allay the parents’ fears that something congenital was responsible for their baby’s death and reassure them that their next baby would not be at risk of dying. It also allows them to make different decisions about how many people their next baby comes into contact with while vulnerable and perhaps they may even insist on hand washing and other infection precautions in the future. Very importantly, it saves them from unspoken accusations that they might have done something directly to cause their baby’s death, like smothering, etc. 

Dr. Obenson was quite satisfied with the outcome in this case, knowing that the finding of a lethal viral infection probably helped  the parents in dealing with  their loss.  This is why he insists that as per international guidelines, a  thorough post mortem examination be performed in infants, after a comprehensive death scene investigation with review of  radiologic, toxicological, histologic and microbiological findings. 

“My role, when there is a homicide of an infant, is collect evidence such that the law is able to hold whoever is responsible to account,” he explained. “I have been qualified as an expert witness in court which means that because of my training, certification and experience, I am able to  give opinion evidence as to the cause and manner of death, unlike 'eye' witnesses who can only speak to what they have seen or heard.” 

Although for most of us, the murder of an infant is unthinkable, it does happen. Dr. Obenson explains that if there is an adult unrelated to the infant living in the house, like a new boyfriend, they are statistically more likely to kill that child. However, biological parents also do kill their babies, with fathers being more likely to do so violently than mothers. Unfortunately the less violent the trauma the more difficult it can be to detect physical evidence of foul play. For example, Dr. Obenson points out, if a baby is smothered, petechial hemorrhages in the eye  that are often seen in, but not exclusive to an asphyxial death are less likely to occur in infants- which is why these death investigations can be so complex. 

Dr Obenson takes his role as an impartial witness seriously and derives no personal satisfaction from a conviction. His only responsibility is use all available evidence from death scene, to social circumstances to post mortem examination and ancillary tests to arrive at a reasonable opinion on the cause of death. 
Dr. Obenson has practiced forensic pathology in the United States, in Jamaica and for nearly 20 years in Canada. He says, “We don’t have as many suspicious child deaths in Canada, particularly homicides. My theory is that the social safety nets in Canada alleviate some of the social stresses families feel.” 

This is the best argument I have ever heard for supporting families: protecting children.

12 June 2019

Wire in the Blood



Wire in the Blood is a Brit TV show based on Val McDermid's series of books featuring forensic psychologist Tony Hill. The character's played by Robson Green, who might be familiar to some of you from Grantchester, and who was also in seasons 4 and 5 of Strike Back, which is where he first caught my attention. He's had a solid career going back to the late 1980's, light comedy and heavy drama, but I wouldn't wonder if doing Tony Hill isn't one of the highlights.

Criminal profiling, in the formal sense, goes back at least to the Whitechapel terror - Jack the Ripper is said to be the first object of analysis. David Morrell would give you an argument, and suggest Thomas de Quincey's essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," which examines the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, predating the Ripper by some 75 years. The 'science,' disputed by some scholars, has gotten a lot of traction over the last forty years or so. The FBI commissioned their Behavioral Science Unit in 1972. Thomas Harris published Red Dragon in 1981. Popular imagination does the rest.




Wire in the Blood falls very much in hagiographic terrain. Tony Hill has an unsettling ability to put himself in a killer's shoes, but his insights aren't always appreciated by the more evidence-driven homicide dicks he works with. He'll make an intuitive leap; they'll be looking for a DNA match. In practice, it usually works out, and the bad guys meet their just desserts. In terms of narrative structure, it can be a little predictable, since Tony's so often proved right. This isn't, in the scheme of things, actually a weakness. It provides a two-track storyline, and even though you know Tony has his finger on the killer's internal mechanics, it's gonna be the cops who run the villain to earth.

There's a very definite something else going on with Tony Hill, though, and certainly in the way that Robson Green inhabits the character. Tony isn't socially adept. If he's not quite as bone-headed as, say, Doc Martin, he's obviously somewhere on the spectrum. This plays out as an interesting contradiction. Tony will walk his way through a crime scene, and try to experience it from the POV of both victim and killer. This kind of sympathetic vibration doesn't work for him, however, with what most of us think of as generic social interaction. He'll stop a conversation cold because he's had a sudden epiphany, he'll forget what he was saying, he'll walk out of a room. He doesn't realize his behavior is often careless or even hurtful. He doesn't mean it to be, of course, and he's embarrassed when he's caught out, but he's obsessive-compulsive. He's got tunnel vision.



This is a curiously common characteristic in our ratiocinatory detectives - is that a word? Sherlock Holmes, for one. Emotion clouds the reasoning process. On the other hand, empathy is a necessary part of it. Tony Hill is deeply affected by what he does, but he has to keep his distance. It's a puzzle in and of itself, and Robson Green makes the guy fascinating to watch. Not endearing, mind, but isolated, apart. Too much in his own head.

I should add a cautionary note. Wire in the Blood isn't a cozy. The theme is damage, the pathologies are unsettling, the prey are children, or the weak, or the damned. It's not terribly reassuring. It makes for one hell of a compelling narrative, though.

17 September 2018

Who Wrote It?


When an anonymous "senior administration official" published an op ed in the New York Times two weeks ago, he (or possibly they ) set off another firestorm in the current presidency. Countless articles and online posts have tried to identify the author(s) and the suspects range from Mike Pence to Dan Coates to Steve Bannon, and one even suggests Trump wrote it himself, which I seriously doubt.

Hand-writing analysis has been with us for even longer than the "forensic linguistics" that people are using to identify this writer. But there are stumbling blocks to the approach in this case. It's a small sample and we don't have anything else we can compare it to. We need another article on a similar subject of about the same length by each of the 100 (I love that!) suspects to make a meaningful decision.

The experts look at how certain words are used, how a writer punctuates and uses paragraphs, and many other clues. The good ones claim the science is almost as solid as DNA, but that may be pushing it. More than one expert has pointed out that we don't know how much the Times altered words, phrasing or punctuation to bring the piece in line with its own style guides.

In any case, while there are writers who had a distinctive and usually recognizable style, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, both of whom had contests involving people writing a pastiche of their work, there are others who change style and voice often. Laura Lippman comes to mind. Some writers have been identified even when they use a pseudonym. Patrick Juola, presently at Duquesne University, used forensic linguistics to prove that J. K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, even though the name on the book cover was Robert Galbraith. Gary Taylor boosted his reputation as a Shakespearean by identifying an unattributed (and not very good) poem to the Bard.

When I was still directing plays, I had a reputation as a minor-league expert on Shakespeare. I have read most of the plays several times, acted in a dozen of them, and directed still others. While teaching, I assigned fourteen different plays at one time or another.
 In 1990, Charles Hamilton published a text that he claimed was Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, basing his conclusion on handwriting analysis, which is problematic because authorities argue over which of several samples really is Shakespeare's hand--if any of those samples we have really is his own. Hamilton said The Second Maiden's Tragedy, credited to Thomas Middleton, was really the text of Cardenio, possibly co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

I read the play and disagreed. Thomas Middleton wrote a play called The Witch, which Shakespeare borrowed heavily from for the witch scenes in Macbeth. Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated near the end of Shakespeare's career, and Cardenio--inspired by a section of Don Quixote, which was published in English in 1612--didn't fit what Shakespeare was producing at that point. I say this as someone who devoured John Barton's and Cicely Berry's books on how Shakespeare used language because they helped me direct. So does the First Folio.

Cardenio was supposedly written between The Tempest and All Is True (Henry VIII), just after The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.  I've acted in and directed separate productions of The Winter's Tale (about 20 years apart) and participated in two productions of The Tempest. Compared to them, the language in Cardenio is clumsy and immature. The cast is much smaller than in any of Shakespeare's other plays (remember, bit players often played several roles), and the structure is even more truncated than Macbeth, which is complete but always feels like something's been cut. Even on his own, John Fletcher was better than this. So was Kit Marlowe. So were the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby and Francis Bacon.


Truthfully, the authorship is fine topic for yet another graduate thesis, but I don't care who wrote the plays as long as good directors and actors continue to perform them for the rest of us.

Same with the New York Times op ed.

I don't care as much about who wrote the piece as I do about the admission that the White House staff is undermining Trump's actions out of self-interest instead of taking the appropriate steps to invoke the 25th Amendment for the Greater Good.

11 February 2018

A Voice for the Dead


“I don't believe it, and none of us believe it.”[1]

That was the response to the police assessment of murder-suicide from one friend of billionaires Honey and Barry Sherman. This was followed by a chorus of agreement from many prominent Canadians, and subsequently by an expensive independent investigation which resulted in a revised new assessment of double murder.

Leigh Lundin asked me to look at this now high-profile Canadian crime being played out, blow by blow, in the news. So here I am looking at it. But with Canadian eyes.

Honey and Barry Sherman
Honey and Barry Sherman
My question isn't about what happened in this particular crime. I feel confident that it will play out in the investigation, and that the truth will emerge. My question is this: What would happen if a family disagreed, but did not have powerful friends or the money to conduct their own investigation? What if the family were poor, but still vehemently in disagreement? What if a murderer was on the cusp of getting away with it? Who would stop them? 


I brought this up with Dr. Coroner – not his real name but it would be a good one, because he is indeed a coroner. He is called in if a death occurs outside a hospital, and occasionally in it. His job is essentially to assess the manner and cause of death. Is this death natural, an accident, a suicide or a homicide?

The body can be photographed but cannot be touched until he is finished his assessment and releases the body. He looks at the story, told by the body, of the manner and timing of death. There is also the story told by the place of death, and the question for him is whether it is consistent with the story the body tells.

My question: If the family disagreed with a murder-suicide verdict, but were neither educated or moneyed – what would he do? What if the family was unable to articulate a story as well as the friends and family of the Shermans? What if they were angry and threatening, or in general made themselves unsympathetic?

He said often his job is to help reconcile the disbelief with the reality. Some counselling is often part of what he does with families.

Also, he argues that marriage – by the nature of the long term relationship – can lead people to kill each other, even if they look to others like they are happy. Marriage itself can be the reason for murder.

Those caveats aside, Dr. C. said there was enough from the story of the “murder-suicide” of the Shermans to make him suspicious, largely because the story is wrong. Domestic murder is often more violent, angry. Hanging is not what he would expect as a means of murder or suicide in this case. Hanging is more often seen in cases of mental illness or extreme distress. Further, why would a man who has copious drugs available to him choose this manner of death for himself and his wife?

If the stories of the body, manner of death and family assessment make Dr. C. suspicious in any way, he has many options to augment the evidence he gathers.
  • The authority of the coroner overrides privacy of information, so he can seize records from sources such as the family doctor, psychiatrists, and psychologists. This could provide a more fulsome picture.
  • He can seize all radiological and dental records, to see if there is evidence of previous abuse.
  • He can order a post mortem, or a forensic autopsy and refuse to complete the death certificate or even provide the funeral home with a warrant to bury, until he is fully satisfied.
Ultimately, the story must hang together. Regardless of the ability of the family to articulate their concerns, or their resources to investigate on their own, Dr. C. relies on having a coherent story told by the manner of death, the body, the family and the records seized. If there are inconsistencies – then a further investigation is warranted.

If a family were unable to mount the same vigorous objection and investigation as the Shermans have, it could be the coroner who stands between the constructed truth of the murderer and the actual truth of the victim.

Ultimately, all crime writing is social justice writing. And the poor have a voice – the coroner. The story of the body, uncovering the life lived, the manner of death, might be the key to catching a murderer. The background knowledge and tenacity of the coroner is what most of us rely on when our bank accounts are meagre.

Dr. C. said that the job of the coroner is to provide a voice for the dead, to listen carefully to the story they tell. This is the first step towards social justice for those without money and connections. They do this by asking the simple question:
Does the story of this death make sense?

07 January 2018

Radiology and Murder



Doctor John Doe (DJD) is a radiologist. That is not his real name, but it is his real profession. DJD is the doctor who reads CTs, MRIs and various other images that help diagnose illness. He is dedicated, competent, and once said a line which should be famous: ’When life hands me a lemon, I put it in a bag, find the person responsible and hit them over the head with the lemon.’ I adore him because feisty is always the way to go in life.

I asked him about his thoughts on murder:

DJD: I would be interested in seeing a two victim murder, in which the murderer uses the first victim as a pawn, believing that their death will cause such a deep grief for the the second victim, who is the person the murderer really wants dead, that their staged suicide will appear plausible. To the murderer, it appears like an undetectable crime. The murderer gives the first victim  a blow to the head and then throws them down the stairs or in front of an oncoming car, making it look like a terrible accident.

The second victim is someone who deeply cares about the first. They could be murdered by numerous means made to look like a suicide resulting from grief. Often people are prescribed sleeping pills or anti-anxiety meds to cope with a grievous loss. DJD suggests one easy way to kill them is to get them drunk and grind a deadly dose of the pills they have on hand into one of the drinks. At first blush, this looks like a drinking binge of a depressed person who decided to kill themselves because of grief. The murderer simply has to leave the staged evidence of a booze bottle and an empty, opened pill bottle. 

Could the chain of murders be unraveled, starting with a critical examination of the first, apparently random act? The radiologist could first examine cutting-edge radiological evidence postmortem.

DJD is sometimes called in when the coroner has questions about the cause of death. For example, did the blow on the head occur before the car accident, or was the victim lethally struck on the head and then pushed down the stairs? Using radiological evidence, that distinction can be made.

Although the forensic autopsy still remains the gold standard for post-mortem forensic assessment, the ‘virtopsy’ is catching up, sometimes augmenting or even replacing the autopsy. When there are religious or other reasons for excluding an autopsy, the virtopsy is the only evidence available. Sometimes, even with a pending autopsy, a virtopsy will be used. 

A virtopsy is the pre-autopsy whole-body CT or MRI scan, used to identify cause of death. Some studies have shown that a CT scan may be more effective in detecting some causes of death, and that the imaging may be better than a full autopsy to detect such causes of death as intracranial pathologies (such as strokes) and pneumothorax.

If someone is killed first, say with a blow to the head, and then pushed into the path of an oncoming car or thrown down a flight of stairs, most people assume that the serious and extensive injuries of the fall or impact will hide the original blow to the head. However, careful examination for the radiological evidence can clarify the timing of the injuries. And again, this can be done even if the family rejects, for religious or other reasons, a full autopsy. 

Impact from a car or a fall may show multiple bone fractures of the skull, ribs, vertebrae and extremities, as well as damage to organs. However, these impact lesions will lack the relevant surrounding hemorrhage which would have been expected under these circumstances. In short, if you die before impact, the lesions of impact will bleed less because your heart isn't pumping blood. This bleeding pattern will help identify the actual blow that caused death because of the extensive hemorrhage at that site of injury. 

This new radiological post-mortem examination is a cutting edge means of identifying cause of death and timing of injuries that were sustained. We will, I think, hear more about it as the techniques evolve.

One interesting use of CTs is identifying those who have been poisoned and then hit by a car or who have sustained other injuries. The amount of blood from impact injuries is reduced when the victim is previously killed by any means, including poison. 

A complex chain of events, like DJD’s proposed double murder, can be unraveled by tugging at the simplest loose threads. For radiologists, a virtopsy provides a cutting-edge method to find these loose threads and exploit them.

28 March 2017

How to be a Hero: Debra Komar


Trigger warning: sensitive souls should not read this. [NSFW. NSFL.]

Dr. Debra Komar spent over two decades investigating war crimes as a forensic scientist for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She testified as an expert witness in The Hague.
In other words, she’s a smart, hard-working, funny and unflinching real-life hero who now writes historical crime fiction.
Capital Crime Writers featured her as a speaker this Fall. I wrote as fast as I could, but I still couldn’t get everything down. I recreated it as best I could, in an interview format, to give you three simple lessons on how you can be a hero too.

1. Work hard.
Melissa Yi: I’m an emergency doctor, so I know how to work hard. But I have no idea what it’s like to do a genocide investigation. What does it involve?
Debra Komar: “Start with witnesses and aerial photos. Go in. Exhume. Take photos. Identify the remains. Return them to families. Create the narrative.”
So when you’re on the ground, what is your day-to-day life like?
“In Iraq, there were shipping containers around us, 75 people in a room. Only eight of them were the scientific team, but you need that many to get you out safely and back in. For six months, you work twenty hours a day, in the desert, with people shooting at you, emptying graves and doing autopsies all night.”
That sounds…
“Soul-destroying.”
I’m not sure  I could do that.
“It was the same 19 of us who’ve shown up for the past 20 years. You’re considered retired after ten missions. I did 18.”
Debra Komar and Melissa Yi. Photo by Patricia Filteau.
2. Learn how to laugh.
How did you deal with it?
“A lot of people in my industry drink too much. My way was to turn off emotion…and [use] morgue humour.”
Komar teaches forensic science, and she has some popular sessions like Museum (autopsy lockers full of interesting specimens. One of them was filled exclusively with rectal foreign bodies, i.e. items pulled exclusively from a rectum).
They also played Spot the B.S. They’d play a clip from TV, and students would call out the errors.

3. Learn how to leave.
How did you become a writer?
“I always wanted to write. I had a quiet agreement to myself: I’d do this work as long as I could, and then retire.”
So you’re retired now?
“It’s hard to retire. I still have students, and I appear in court.”
Was it hard to make the transition from genocide investigation to writing?
“When you work in a morgue, you realize life is short. I was prepared to fall on my face and fail, but I wasn’t willing not to try.”

When Komar started writing true crime books, she chose to write historical crime. Which doesn’t mean she pulls her punches.

For example, in The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, she describes the Nova Scotia case of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in 1896: someone clubbed Annie with a piece of firewood and slit her throat three times with a kitchen knife, then sat down and ate a jar of homemade jam, leaving a spoon covered in bloody fingerprints, before abandoning her body.
Peter Wheeler, a “coloured” man, found her body when he came to the house to buy milk in the morning. In this book, Komar explains why Wheeler was innocent and how racism, the court system, primitive forensics and the media played a role in convicting and hanging him. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
In her most recent book, Black River Road, Komar follows teenaged berry pickers in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1869, to discover the decomposing body of Maggie Vail and her child. The accused? John Munroe, an architect, the lover of Maggie Vail and father of her child, who claimed he was innocent because his character would not permit him to commit such a heinous act. Komar explores the role of character in the court of law in a world before forensic science became the star witness. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
*
After I met her at CCW, Komar generously agreed to read an excerpt of my novel, Human Remains. In the second chapter, Dr. Hope Sze and her boyfriend Ryan confront a dead man, thanks to a Rottweiler named Roxy.
Komar wrote, “It's clear you are a doctor, not in a bad way.  You keep it simple and define terms were necessary - all very good.  You also do a great job of capturing the na├»ve enthusiasm of a resident - wanting to help, even in the face of a clearly deceased individual.  We've all seen (and been) overanxious eager residents that think they can bring people back to life.”
She explained that Hope shouldn’t disturb the scene and the forensic evidence, but the operator would defer to Hope’s medical expertise in resuscitating, because saving a life takes precedence over preserving evidence.
I should mention that she said the operator wouldn’t normally put Ryan on hold to debate the point, but I kept that bit in as creative license. All this to say that Komar was exceedingly generous with her time, and I am grateful to Capital Crime Writers for the opportunity.
*
Komar recently completed a writer-in-residence position at Pierre Burton House in Dawson City, Yukon, in preparation for her next book. If you follow her on Twitter, you can see some photos of dogsledding and a thermometer hitting almost -40 in both Celsius and Farenheit.
In other words, when you’re a hero, you may never stop creating adventures for yourself and your readers.

Long may she reign.

Melissa Yi is an emergency physician and award-winning writer. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Dr. Debra Komar is on Twitter.

21 June 2016

Sweet Dreams and Armpits


A is for…


I'll start off with the second part of the title first.
When I get a trauma case, my priorities are ABC, or C-ABC

C-spine (some experts put this first, so we don't forget to immobilize the cervical spine)

Airway: is the patient talking? Bleeding? Suffering from a burn that will close off the airway?

Breathing: now check the lungs and chest. Look at the respiratory rate and oxygenation.

Circulation: is s/he bleeding anywhere? How are the blood pressure and heart rate?

D is for disability, which means a neurological exam. Pupils, reflexes, and strength if the patient will cooperate.

Dr. Scott Weingart, an emergency physician intensivist based in New York, emphasizes E for Exposure in penetrating trauma. You need to find the entry and exit points so the patient doesn’t bleed out from a bullet wound in the back while you’re messing around with a chest tube in the front.

So even before establishing airway, if the patient is maintaining an airway and has no blunt injuries, Dr. Weingart inspects “every square centimetre” of the patient’s skin, including the axillae, the back, the gluteal folds and the perineum, including lifting up the scrotum in a male patient. A much catchier mnemonic, proposed by Dr. Robert Orman, an emergency physician in Portland, Oregon, is: “armpits, back, butt cheeks and sack.”

With thanks to Leigh Lundin for pointing out that I had forgotten to post, and to the Medical Post for originally printing this clinical pearl.

Sweet Dreams

And now for a happy dance: one of my writing dreams has come true. When I looked at Rob Lopresti's column, I recognized the Forensics book cover by Val McDermid.

Why? Because it was chosen as one of CBC's best crime books of the season--along with my own Stockholm Syndrome.

Kris Rusch has said that you should make sure you set writing goals, which are within your control, as well as dreams, which are pies in the sky.

Well, I've been wanting to get on CBC's The Next Chapter for years. So I updated my list of writing dreams and goals here.

Goal: unlocked!

Of course, I have approximately 2 million other unrealized goals, but it's a start. How about you? What are your writing goals and dreams?

Signing out so I can get some sleep before my ER shift tomorrow. I hope I won't need to use my C-ABCDE mnemonic, but you never know what'll happen.

Peace.

15 June 2016

The Scientist and the Man in Black


Call this the third in my extremely occasional series of reviews of non-fiction books.  As before I am including two at no extra cost.
Forensics by Val McDermid, is a terrific guide to the science of crime-solving.  McDermid was a reporter before she became a best-selling crime writer and it shows. She gives you just enough of the technology, while focusing on the people, and often on the history.

For example, the chapter on entomology begins with the earliest recorded case of insects being used in the investigation of a crime.  In China in 1247 a man was found murdered with, it was determined, a sickle.  The coroner ordered all 70 men in the area to stand together with their sickles.  Flies immediately detected what the eyes couldn't, identifying the guilty man by landing on his weapon to feast on traces of blood.

There are chapters on fire scene investigation, pathology, toxicology, digital forensics, and much more.  McDermid tells of heroic scientists, and others who botched their work, usually out of over-confidence.  Sometimes their mistakes ruin, or even end, the lives of suspects.

One horror story is that of Colin Stagg, an Englishman who seemed a perfect match for a forensic profiler's description of the man who killed a woman in a London park in 1992.  The cops tried hard to prove he was the man, even introducing him to a policewoman who claimed to be attracted to him and into rough sex.  Astonishingly, this guy who had apparently never had a successful relationship with a woman, offered to give her what she said she wanted.  Clearly proof of guilt!


The judge politely called the prosecution's theory of the case "highly disingenuous" and dismissed it.  The policewoman took early retirement for PTSD, and Stagg was awarded a ton of money because his name was so ruined he couldn't find work.  In 2008 another man was convicted of the murder, based on DNA evidence.

The last chapter is about giving courtroom evidence, which most of the scientists appear to hate.  I suppose if an attorney was going to try to make me seem incompetent and dishonest I wouldn't like it either.

But I do like Forensics, and highly recommend it.

Unlike all the other books I have reviewed in this series, As You Wish by Cary Elwes has nothing to do with crime.  But it certainly has something to do with writing, specifically one of the best-written movies of all time. If you aren't a fan of The Princess Bride you may stop reading right now (and never darken my towels again, as Groucho Marx said).

Cary Elwes, of course, played Westley in that movie and, to celebrate its 25th anniversary he has published his memoir of the filming of the show.  If you love this flick you will relish his stories.  For example:

*William Goldman, who wrote the novel and the script (which for many years was considered by Hollywood one of the best unfilmable scripts around) was terrified that director Rob Reiner would butcher his darling work.  On the first day of filming the sound man picked up a strange noise.  It was Goldman, at the other end of the set, praying.



*Remember the sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black?  Except for the swing on the horizontal bar, there were no stunt doubles (well, I have my doubts about Patinkin's flying somersault).  You are seeing four months of daily training with Olympic fencers and a solid week of filming.

*Wallace Shawn, who  played Vizzini, was terrified that Reiner was going to replace him.  Making things worse, the vagaries of film scheduling meant that his first scene was his most complicated: the Battle of Wits.

* Remember the scene where the six-fingered man strikes Westley with the butt of his sword and he falls down unconscious?  That wasn't acting.  He woke up in the hospital.

*When Andre the Giant (who played Fezzik, of course) was a child in rural France he outgrew the school bus, so every day he was driven to school by the only man in town who owned a convertible: the playwright Samuel Beckett.

So, if you love this movie, read this book.  To do otherwise would be... (say it with me) inconceivable.

18 September 2012

Saucy Jack


It was inevitable, I guess, that after doing postings on Lizzie Borden, the princes in the tower, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the child murders in the Bahamas, and even Uncle Jimmy, that I must, at last, come to this--Saucy Jack...that Jack...the Jack.  I do so almost reluctantly because of the emotiosns  he stirs to this day, and the controversy that continues to swirl round his legend.

By today's standards, Jack the Ripper's body count wouldn't even get him into the top ten of modern serial killers.  He had only five, though some argue there are one, or more, additional murders that should be attributed to him.  Whatever the true count may be, his savagery places him right up there with the heavy hitters of any age.  Additionally, he has the distinction of being both an original and uncaught.  After five (or more) unsolved murders of prostitutes, he simply stopped--his mystery remains.

Just like Lizzie, but much, much more so, there have been millions of words written about Jack--so much, indeed, that you might think he was still among us and practicing his devilish trade in murder.  There have been dozens of suspects offered up by writers and scholars that were unknown to the police of that time, or never considered by them if they were.  In fact, there has probably been no case in the history of recorded crime in which the public has done more second-guessing of the police than this one.  It went on during Jack's heinous career, and has continued to this day.  I will not be doing that.  I can't come up with a single theory or suspect that hasn't already been put forth by someone...somewhere.  So I'm not even going to try.  Why this case continues to fascinate us so long after the brutal acts were committed--that, I might can answer.


A number of elements conspired to make Jack the Ripper a household bogeyman during his own time: The emergence of the modern tabloid newspaper, a Victorian-era fad of philanthropic concern for the destitute of London's slums, the thwarting of the seemingly implacable Scotland Yard, and interest in the case from Queen Victoria herself.  For later generations, I would add that the glamor of a seemingly genteel, mysterious, and by-gone era, cloaked in fog and black lace, provided an irresistible backdrop to Jack's horrors.  He was a real-life Mr. Hyde, and the mystery lay in trying to uncover his Dr. Jekyll alter ego.

Of suspects, there is one for every taste; they run the gamut from butcher to surgeon, royal heir to crazed foreigner.  But Jack was no gentleman, whatever his day job might have been.  Though his murder spree only extended over a few months (much longer according to some), each killing was more brutal than the last.  The victims, all the poorest of prostitutes, were savagely killed, their throats sliced, their abdomens mutilated, and in several instances, organs were removed.  All, but one of the murders were carried out on the streets, the bodies left for a terrified public to discover.  The last was accomplished indoors, in a small, bed-sitter, as the British dub them.  There he was able to work without fear of discovery or interruption, and he, quite literally, destroyed the poor woman.  Then, he seemingly vanished.

There are as many theories about his disappearance as there are about his identity: he killed himself, he was imprisoned on unrelated charges, he was committed to an insane asylum, or he fled to another country; perhaps America.  These are just a few of the ideas put forth.  Of course, it is unlikely we will ever know who he was or what became of him, but his stealing away into the fog has impressed an indelible image into our collective minds; adding to his myth.

Jack was also his own publicist, which was a new wrinkle that contributed greatly to his legendary status.  He wrote several letters "From Hell," expressing his glee and enjoyment with mutilation and murder.  He signed himself, "Jack the Ripper" and also coined the coy moniker of "Saucy Jack."  The details leaked out to the public--the denizens of London may have been terrified of Jack, but they were also insatiably curious about him.  Jack was proud of his horrific deeds and didn't mind saying so; writing in  red ink, and once sending a piece of human kidney along with his message to the world.  He was truly a vile creature.

Much has been made of these letters, and like everything else about Jack, they have inspired debate and controversy.  The police and the professional ripperologists disagree over the authenticity of every letter attributed to the murderer.  Scotland Yard settled on two as being from the real Jack, the others they laid to "copycats."  None featured a return address, which  might have been useful.

Another factor that fueled the growth of Jack's hellish reputation was the slum of Whitechapel that he prowled.  This teeming, filthy neighborhood was no stranger to murder before, or after, Jack.  And the prostitutes that plied their trade there were often the victims of it, even as they are today.  But after the advent of the Ripper murders, every unsolved murder of a female in Whitechapel was laid at his door.  According to some his spree continued until February 1891; the police of that time lay only the five murders to Jack, the last being in November 1888.  In fact, the Metropolitan Police of London divide the murders into two categories: the Ripper murders and the Whitechapel murders.  They do so with good reason.  The details of many of the murders that took place in Whitechapel during the period of August '88 to February '91 show them to be clearly unrelated; the modus operandi, beyond the fact that the killing was of a prostitute, bore little resemblance to Jack's handiwork.  Ironically, some of these "Whitechapel Murders" may also have been the work of the same killer, an unknown person no less brutal than Jack who successfully operated in his shadow.  This, I caution, remains a possibility, not a proven fact.

In most minds, the shadowy, knife-wielding Jack remains the epitome, the touchstone of our acquaintance and fascination with serial murderers.  In spite of that, he was not the first.  Jack was predated by such bloodthirsty villains as Gilles de Rais, who may have murdered hundreds of children before being executed.  Sadly, there were others, as well...many, many others throughout history, and quite probably even before recorded history.  There's no particular reason not to think so.  But Jack remains the penultimate to much of the world because of a perfect storm of factors, not least of which was his penchant for self-aggrandizement and a voracious press.  Add to that mix a mysterious, fog-clad setting offering occasional and salacious glimpses of the seamier side of Victorian London and you have the makings of a dark legend.

On a personal note, I would add that Jack, just like those that come before and after him, was not, in any sense, a romantic creature.  He was a vicious, merciless killer of defenseless women--a monster, really.  You have only to look at the crime scene and autopsy photos to see that.  The last murder, that of Mary Kelly, is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.  Jack may have written his gloating letters "From Hell," but if there's anything certain in this case, it's that he's certainly there now.

24 July 2012

Forty Whacks



Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Just about everyone is familiar with that iconic verse, even if they are not familiar with the infamous case from which it springs.  The average person is usually surprised to learn that the axe-wielding Lizzie was found not guilty of the murders of her father and step-mother.  Why then, those same people might ask, does that danged poem hang on so?  Good question, which unlike the case itself, has a fairly easy and clear answer--everybody thought she was guilty.  Well, maybe not everybody, but just about.  She did have her defenders during her trial, and she has a vast horde of them today.  There are many websites and books dedicated to clearing her name, just as the jury cleared her of any wrong-doing.

There are parallel cases even today: The O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony murder cases spring to mind.  Not guilty?  Most folks don't think so and never will.  People in Lizzie's time felt the same about her.  When you know the facts of her case it is difficult to rule her out...but not impossible, hence the verdict.  Here are the facts in brief: On August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, father of Lizzie, 32, and Emma, 41, (spinsters according to the times) arrived home from his business rounds sometime close to 10:45am to take a rest.  The weather was brutally hot and it would appear that he lay down on a settee in the living room to nap.  He would not be getting up.  The maid (Irish, of course), Bridget Sullivan, was also lying down in her room upstairs when she heard Lizzie calling her to say that her father had been killed.  She stated that this was around 11:00am. 

Andrew Borden's Death Scene
It is worth noting, that the entire household had been down with food poisoning the previous day, which may explain the need for rest in the Borden home.  Strangely, the fear of being poisoned had arisen in the days before the murders and created such paranoia that the Bordens had had some of their food tested.  The results were negative.  Other than the fact that Andrew was not the most popular figure in town, it is not clear why or how the Borden clan arrived at their suspicions.

In any event, Andrew was indeed murdered.  The number of whacks he had received fell well short of the infamous forty-one, but were more than sufficient at ten, or eleven, having been applied to the head.  The wounds appeared to have been made with an axe.  The police were summoned.  After their arrival, darlin' Bridget went in search of her mistress, Abby Borden, whom no one else seems to have missed up to this point...and found her in the upstairs guest room.  She was in a kneeling position between the bed and the wall, her face to the floor, her skull caved in.  It was estimated that she had received nineteen blows to the back of her head by an instrument similar to, or identical with, the one used on her husband.  A search ensued for evidence.

Abby Borden's Death Scene

All that was found of consequence was a hatchet with a broken handle.  This was in the basement.  There would later be conflicting testimony on whether the remainder of the handle was, or was not, discovered.  There were no blood stains evident on it.  Strangely, the police made a conscious decision not to dust the hatchet for fingerprints.  Forensics were just beginning to be used by police in the 1890's and trust in these new methods was not necessarily widespread.  Unfortunately in this case, this potentially valuable piece of evidence was left unprocessed.

On the day of the double murders, the only persons at home in the Borden household were the victims, Lizzie, and Bridget.  Emma was off visiting some friends in the country.  Lizzie would later testify that she had been out in the barn just prior to coming in and discovering her father's much-abused corpse.  According to her, there were some lead fishing sinkers stored in the loft that she wished to locate--this is Lizzie's testimony.  Bridget was supposed to be cleaning windows on that hot day, but had lain down to rest as previously mentioned.  There were no blood stains on the clothing of either woman.  Coincidentally, a few days later, Lizzie would be seen burning a relatively new blue dress in the kitchen stove.  She testified that the dress had got paint on it from some newly-painted baseboards and was ruined.  This was not the dress she had been wearing upon the arrival of the police.

That is the bare-bones of the crime scene. I'm not going to dwell on all the potentially relevant details as most are a matter of interpretation and debate, and there are a number of well-researched books on the subject available.  Instead, I will turn to a brief description of the dynamics underpinning the Borden household in the days prior to the murders: In a nutshell, no one was happy.  Abby, who was Lizzie and Emma's stepmother, was not popular with the girls, especially Lizzie.  In fact, about six years prior to the fateful day, Lizzie had quit calling her mother (she had been the mother figure in her life since the age of three) and began to refer to her as Mrs. Borden.  It is not recorded why.  Their father, Andrew, was a notorious skinflint who spent as little as possible on the home they all lived in.  In spite of the fact that they were quite well off, they had no electricity or indoor plumbing, having to dump their 'night soil' in the back yard each day.  A running dispute had arisen in recent times over the distribution of property and monies, both sisters demanding what they felt was their due.  Also, an illegitimate son of Andrew's had attempted a shake-down of the old man just days out from the tragedy.  He was not successful.  Did I mention that no one was happy?  On top of all this was the family's shared concern over poisoning.  Could it get any worse?  Yes.  According to Liz, her father beheaded all her pet pigeons that she kept in the barn.  He was concerned, it seems, that they were attracting curious neighborhood children who might cause damage or be hurt in the disused building.  Right...Murder, anyone?

So what's the upshot of all this?  Not guilty.  Lizzie was acquitted less than a year later, June 20, 1893 to be exact, after only one and half hours of deliberation.  In modern terms it's not too hard to understand why--there was virtually no physical evidence.  Circumstantial evidence is another thing altogether.  There was some of that, but the jury chose to give it scant weight.  I think she would have been given the same result if it were tried today.  Recent verdicts would seem to indicate that juries don't want the moral burden inherent in circumstantial cases.  It was also difficult for the all-male jurors of the Victorian era to envision young ladies of the proper class committing heinous crimes.  It just wasn't done.  Unthinkable.

I'm thinking it's thinkable.  How about you?  With a verdict of not guilty, the slayings remain officially unsolved, as are the Simpson and Casey murders.  That does not mean that we don't form our own opinions, whether rightly or wrongly we may never know.  It's an interesting, if ultimately futile, exercise to think of what modern investigative techniques might have been able to do with the Borden crime scene.  There has been much speculation over the years as to what really did happen August 4th, 1892, including the tantalizing theory that Lizzie committed the murders in the buff.  The picture my mind conjures of the rather formidable Lizzie (see photo) creepy-crawling through that dark, narrow-roomed, stuffy Victorian home in her birthday suit is mind-jarringly terrifying.  Can you imagine the horror of the last thing you see in this world being your naked, adult child swinging a hatchet down onto your head?

The debate over the Borden case goes on, and probably will for some time to come.  It is possible that it may yet be solved.  Patricia Cornwell, famous writer of mystery novels, as well as a forensic pathologist, claims to have solved the Ripper murders of London.  She makes this claim in her book, "Portrait Of A Killer--Jack The Ripper Case Closed," setting forth a very intelligent investigation into the available evidence and arriving at a very convincing conclusion with the use of DNA.  Certainly a surprising one for me.  Though the case she puts forth can only be tested so far, it is the most compelling one I've read.  It's well worth a look if you're interested.  Perhaps she'll move on to the Borden case.  Maybe Lizzie really is innocent, or at least, not guilty.  Who knows?  Stranger things have happened--the actress, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), who played Lizzie in a made-for-TV-film, turned out to be actually related to her.  She did not know this at the time of the filming, and it was only discovered after her death by someone doing genetic research on Lizzie.  The doctor who did the autopsies on Andrew and Abby had to be sued to return their heads.  This was only accomplished after their funerals; the heads being buried atop the caskets in separate boxes later.  I did say stranger, didn't I?

Well, what say you?  Lizzie, or nay?  It could have been the illegitimate son, though he was never considered a serious suspect at the time.  He certainly had both a beef (his unacknowledged status) and a motive (money). What about dear Bridget?  She was supposed to be washing windows, not laying about in her room.  She wasn't too happy about that assignment.  Maybe she was very unhappy about it.  The Bordens couldn't have been easy to work for, I'm thinking.  Who's to say Emma couldn't have ridden in from her friend's home and committed the murders and returned the way she came.  Especially if she was in cahoots with Lizzie, the look-out, in the barn. Was the only thing that saved Bridget the fact that she didn't rise to investigate any strange sounds in the house?  Was she asleep?  She doesn't say so.  Was she an accomplice?  It would have been instructive, perhaps, for someone to have looked into her finances after the murders.

It was a long time ago...but it could have been yesterday--we see similar crimes far too often.  What do you think?  Did Lizzie give those infamous whacks?

30 December 2011

Gamble Pays Off


Auld Lang Syne

As New Year's Eve rapidly closes upon us, I am reminded of this Scots phrase from Robert Burns. Auld Lang Syne: literally translating into English as “old long since” — or, more colloquially, perhaps: “Long, long ago . . .” A time to look back, to take stock, perhaps to dissect or deconstruct our past actions or thoughts . . .

Dissection can be messy.
I’m no book reviewer. I’ve never been paid to write a book review, nor have I ever written one before. This is not to knock book reviewers. Many do a wonderful job. I read book reviews just like anyone else – hoping to find clues to my next good read.

It’s a job I view with great trepidation however. Because:
(A) I worry about hurting people’s feelings.
(B) To me, reviewing books is just too much like dissecting them.

Whether the type of dissection under discussion is physical, mental or literary, my fear is that after you perform a dissection, you still end up with the guts of a once-living thing cut out, catalogued and stored separately (at least temporarily). Or — if I were handling the job — probably strewn all across creation.

I suspect Lucy Ricardo would make a better M.E. than I would; by the time I completed an autopsy, there’d probably be entrails hanging from the overhead lights. Not intentionally, of course; it’s just the way I do things—you should see what our kitchen looks like after I cook a meal. (Comparing autopsies to cooking . . . can’t tell I recently watched Sweeney Todd on DVD again, can you?)

As for literary dissection . . .

Dismembering story elements for study
Well, it still seems pretty messy to me. And, just as chilling. Even deconstructing a sentence seems to rob it of the life and character it once had. Clauses, sub clauses, words – each forever ripped from the bosom of its family, stored separately, catalogued, labeled.

And, quite dead.

Concerning Self-dissection — well that’s even more tricky.

I suppose dissecting your own writing is easier than dissecting your own body, but only just easier in my opinion. I sometimes have a terrible time trying to tell what’s wrong with a story I’ve written, even when I can clearly feel the “wrongness” within some certain part of it. And that problem increases exponentially when I get involved in novel editing. If you’ve been a faithful reader, then you know that I often turn to a critique group, for help, at times like these.

But one of the stranger tricks I’ve also learned (one which has helped me quite a bit) is to read works by now-best-selling authors, written back when they were in their early years — still “learning the ropes” as it were. The ease of recognizing errors committed in their earlier days is probably comparable to the relative ease of performing an autopsy on someone else, versus pulling one on my own cadaver. (I mean you have that whole “Dead people usually find it difficult to make voluntary movements,” thing to overcome.)

Comparing what went wrong in these early writings, against the way these authors surmounted their “writing problems” in later work, gives me the chance to recognize problem-patterns, then look for them in my own writing. Sort of like a med student learning to diagnose damaged organs contained within live bodies, by examining fatally flawed organs in cadavers. Such study provides the opportunity to seek out and diagnose flawed areas in my own work. It’s not quite as hands-on as an autopsy might be, or as I personally might prefer. But, I’ve learned to try and Go With the Flow! when it comes to the touchy-feely side of writing.

Oddly, perhaps, this is also one of the reasons Felix Francis’s writing appealed to me over the past few years. The son of mystery great Dick Francis, Felix has been finding his way from teaching physics to (and through) the writing thicket.

Not an easy trek.
His writing is much like his father’s in many ways. It’s as if there are similar family features on the faces of both their prose. But, especially in the beginning, there was a certain, unfortunate “flatness” to Felix’s writing — particularly compared to his father’s.

I don’t mean Felix’s stories suffered from flat characters; most were well-rounded and well-drawn. Nor do I mean that he's a bad writer; he's not. He's a good writer. It's just that, where Dick Francis' stories stood up and danced, Felix's seemed to fall flat on my tongue. His writing was flat in the same way that soda left in an open bottle becomes flat. Reading Felix’s work, I felt as if I were reading his father’s work, but it had lost its fizz — and a lot of the flavor along with it.

Now this is a problem I can recognize and sympathize with. I sometimes struggle with “flat writing” in my own work — and I find it one of the most perplexing problems to correct. So I was overjoyed to encounter Felix’s flat writing, because I knew it was so similar to his father’s, that I just might be able to diagnose the cause by comparing the two. In turn, this might open a door to healing my own writing ailments. “Let’s see if we can’t just find out,” I thought to myself, “what the reason for this loss of fizz is.”

Thankfully, I’ve got a pretty full library of Dick Francis paperbacks lying around my office (Yes: “lying around” – all part of that “entrails hanging from the light fixtures” thing!), so I got cracking. And those differences, I discovered, were primarily very small. Tiny even.

Perhaps the truest insight I gained was that the root of the problem (and the reason it’s such a tough nut to crack) lies in the tiny size of the transgressions, multiplied by the number of times they occur.

In retrospect, I decided the nature of the difficulty shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, while lack of carbonation (because it’s all escaped into the atmosphere) lies at the root of flat soda’s problem, it manifests itself through the absence of millions of tiny bursting bubbles. One overall problem -- but, lots of missing bubbles causing it.

One tiny bubble failing to rise to the surface of the soda, and burst there, would hardly be noticeable; a million missing bubbles and the soda is flat, lifeless. It’s no longer effervescent.

In other words: I discovered that (to me, at any rate) flat writing doesn’t seem to be a single problem; it’s a number of tiny problems that snowball, finally combining to rob the piece of flavor.

For example:

One difference I discovered was that Felix Francis’ characters often made outright philosophical statements. Either the reader agreed with those statements, or that reader didn’t agree with the character. I suspect that a little of this goes a long way toward erecting a barrier that keeps a reader, who didn't agree with the expressed opinions, from fully identifying with (and thus caring about) a protagonist, if that protagonist is the character making those statements. And that can be a big problem.

Dick Francis’ characters, on the other hand, seldom made philosophical statements as absolutes. Particularly when working in first person, his POV characters tended to couch such statements in gentle, very subtle ways, nearly always incorporating words such as nearly, almost, sometimes, or some to soften the blow.

It seems to me that using these "wiggle-room" words permits a reader to disagree with the sentiment expressed, but still agree and connect with the character, because the character’s own description has left room for that disagreement. It’s a subtle difference, but over the length of a novel I believe it can have a great impact.

One way to view this recurring difficulty is to think of these little problems as grains of sand at the beach. A beach is composed of millions of tiny grains of sand; if a few grains are misshapen — rough, or sharp edged — it makes little difference to your feet. The beach texture is still inviting. But, keep substituting misshapen grains in place of smooth ones, and eventually the sand texture becomes a little too rough on the toes. The beach becomes uncomfortable to walk on, barefoot. A person finds it hard to settle-in and relax on that beach. Next time they want to spend some time by the ocean, they’ll probably go somewhere else. Though they might have a hard time explaining why.

If I were the kick-ass analyst I wish I were, I would have been able to isolate some sort of Seldon’s Laws (to borrow a term from Asimov's Foundation series) concerning what constitutes the equivalent of “carbonation” in writing. In the real world, however, I’m just not that bright. Consequently, to me, it seems pretty difficult to fix a beach (or manuscript), once it’s filled with a bunch of misshapen sand grains. Because, you can’t just correct one problem to fix the overall flaw. Instead, you’ve got to first find then polish a lot of misshapen little pebbles. Not a quick and easy task — whether we’re talking about beaches, or manuscripts.

For a beach, you might be better off just scraping it clean, then bringing in all new sand. For a manuscript? Well, it might be a good idea to take a tip from the great Asimov and “run it through the typewriter again” completely rewriting that section.

For Felix Francis, however, there seems to have been another solution.
Gamble, Felix’s first book to be published since the death of his father, came out over the summer. Circumstances conspired to keep me from getting my hands on it until last week, however. And, I have to tell you: in my opinion his writing has improved by leaps and bounds. And, it is no longer flat.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the past week. (The kids have been home 24/7 with Winter Break, so it’s not like I was going to get much writing done.)

I’ve never met Felix Francis, haven’t even seen him at a book signing. So I did some online searching and this, coupled with my knowledge that his father died in 2010, has got me contemplating a possible reason for the change.

You see, part of what I think I noticed is that his prose has lost a few of those “family trait” characteristics. Don’t get me wrong; you can still clearly see the resemblance between the writing of father and son.

But, sometimes as a person grows, s/he loses some of the striking similarity in features that were so clearly prevalent in earlier years. It’s just part of the physical metamorphosis of growing up. Other times, a man’s son may do something that would be so uncharacteristic for his father (not necessarily a bad or evil thing—just different from what the father would do) that people are forced to realize the son isn’t just a carbon copy; he’s “his own man” so to speak.

This sort of subtle (on one level), but striking (on another) change, is what I believe I saw in Felix Francis’ writing. You could chalk it up to the idea that his writing is simply maturing, and no one could prove you wrong. But, I suspect another factor is also at play.

This is the first novel he’s written, in which his father has played no role. According to an interview in the British racing magazine Eclipse, Felix said that during the previous novels: “I would write the prose and he (Dick Francis) would then make suggestions or correct me if I had some of the racing not quite right. We never argued much – he seemed to like what I did.”

I’m not saying the earlier problems were being caused by Dick Francis. I’m sure that wasn’t the case. Instead, I’m left wondering if maybe Felix was stretching into a zone, when writing Gamble, which he couldn’t comfortably operate in when his father was alive.

The pressures on a son, writing under his father’s byline — particularly with the knowledge that his father is going to look over what he’s written before it gets sent to a publisher — are sure to be much different than if the son writes under his own byline. Gamble is billed on the cover as: “Dick Francis’s Gamble by Felix Francis.” This is subtly, but powerfully different from the billing Felix received on the previous novels he (evidently) largely wrote. Those were billed as being written by: “Dick Francis with Felix Francis.”

Later in the Eclipse interview, when Felix was asked if his father had left lots of book idea notes, Felix replied: “Sadly there are no notes. It’s all down to me now. It is a bit strange that he is no longer around to read the manuscript and criticise my grammar, but I am confident that he would be happy with the result.”

I believe he’s right; Dick Francis would be happy. Because, what I’m convinced I read in Gamble was a fresh new thing called Felix Francis’ voice. I don’t think he’s got it completely locked in yet. But, I do think he’s got at least one foot in the groove and is closing on target. When he gets there — who knows? Maybe his body of work will even eclipse his father’s.

One thing I’m sure of, however: choosing to write with his new voice took guts. Felix took the risk that long-time Dick Francis fans might slip away. It was a gutsy gamble to use his own voice in the novel. For Felix Francis, however, it looks as if his Gamble will probably pay off.

In Closing:

The great Dick Francis died in 2010, but I didn’t blog back then. So, during this time of Auld Lang Syne when we often look back in remembrance, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge Dick Francis’ legacy through a series of photos borrowed from Felix Francis’ website.




Dick Francis as racing fans must have thought of him.




Dick Francis as I (for some reason) always think of him.





I love the pose here. His stance is so reminiscent of the jockeys he wrote about. And . . . gee, who are those two women he's talking to?





Dick Francis with his wife, Mary.









(L to R) Felix Francis, Dick Francis, and Felix's older brother, Merrick





(That photo at the top of today's blog, incidentally, is Dick Francis finishing a ride he may not have cared to remember too often.)

Happy New Year!


See you in two weeks,
Dix