Book Review – Forensics by Val McDermid

Title: Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime
Author: Val McDermid
Publish Date: July 7, 2015
# of Pages: 320
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️


(From Val McDermid is one of the finest crime writers we have, whose novels have captivated millions of readers worldwide with their riveting narratives of characters who solve complex crimes and confront unimaginable evil. In the course of researching her bestselling novels McDermid has become familiar with every branch of forensics, and now she uncovers the history of this science, real-world murders and the people who must solve them.

The dead talk—to the right listener. They can tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died, and, of course, who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help serve justice using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene, or the faintest of human traces. Forensics draws on interviews with some of these top-level professionals, ground-breaking research, and McDermid’s own original interviews and firsthand experience on scene with top forensic scientists.

Along the way, McDermid discovers how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine one’s time of death; how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer; and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist were able to uncover the victims of a genocide. It’s a journey that will take McDermid to war zones, fire scenes, and autopsy suites, and bring her into contact with both extraordinary bravery and wickedness, as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern-day.


I’ve been interested in forensics ever since I started watching Bones on television. Bones may not be the most accurate depiction of forensics, but there you have it. This book covers everything from blood spatter to facial reconstructions. What I appreciated was McDermid’s use of real cases to back up each branch of forensics. He thoroughly explains how each forensic method works and then gives an example (or several) of how it was actually used in real cases. So cool!

The amount of knowledge in this book is fascinating, and the facts are downright interesting. Several times while reading this book, I had to stop to ask my husband, “Did you know . . . ?” I like books that make me think, and this one did just that.

While I rated this book 3/5, I strongly debated back and forth between a 3 and a 4. If you have any interest in the (morbid) science of forensics, check it out. This book won the Goodreads Choice Award for Science & Technology (2015).


  1. Variety of topics. I liked how many forensic topics McDermid covers. In each of the twelve primary chapters in his book, he discusses a different branch or method of forensics.
  2. Real cases are referenced. Instead of generically describing each forensic method, McDermid explains how they were used in specific cases and what the outcome of the cases were.
  3. Examples from different countries. While a lot of this book discusses forensics within the UK, McDermid does a great job of tying in the United States (as well as other countries). As a reader in the US, I appreciate his breadth of knowledge and his drive to capture a larger audience. I enjoyed reading how forensics—pointedly courtroom presentations—varies in each country.
  4. Well-researched. McDermid discusses several forensic experts in his book and includes relevant quotes from them. It is very clear that he has does his research and knows the topic well.


  1. More details, please! McDermid dumbs forensics down so just about anyone can understand it. That’s fine, but I found myself wanting more details about the science and the cases presented in the book.


“Together they decided that for his dissertation he would look into the ability of smoke alarms to wake children. They asked the parents of thirty children to set off the smoke alarms in their properties at random hours of the night. ‘Eighty per cent of these children did not wake up, even though some of them had the alarm in their bedroom.’”

“At first a body relaxes completely, then after three or four hours the small muscles of the eyelids, face and neck begin to stiffen. Rigor progresses downwards, from head to toe towards the larger muscles. After twelve hours the body is completely rigid and will stay fixed in the position of death for around twenty-four hours. Then the muscles gradually relax and stiffness goes away in the order in which it appeared, starting with the smaller muscles and progressing to the larger ones. After a further twelve hours or so all the muscles reach a state of complete relaxation.”

“In Stafford-Smith’s words, ‘Capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment.’”

“But, however personally stressful a forensic scientist may find giving testimony, the courtroom is the anvil on which scientific evidence is struck. With a well-prepared lawyer playing the part of the hammer, forensic techniques are either strengthened or broken, according to their merit.”

Buy It

Check this book out at your local library, or buy it here* on Amazon.

*Note: this is an affiliate link


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