The real world of ‘CSI’

2009-10-21 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Beyond the Body Farm

Bill Bass and John Jefferson

Quercus

IN 1980, on three acres of unused land behind the University of Tennessee Medical Centre at Knoxville, Dr Bill Bass founded the outdoor laboratory that ­became known as the Body Farm.

Patricia Cornwell’s riveting novel of that name first drew general ­attention to the place where ­researchers studied decomposing human bodies and gradually built up the information (about the colonisation of corpses by insects, for example), now in common use by ­forensic laboratories everywhere. Much of the evidence cited in the CSI television series stems from these studies, and anyone who watched Stephen Fry’s televised journey through the American states recently will have paused with him at the Body Farm — and, perhaps, have been surprised by its unobtrusiveness and small size.

Bass, clearly, was a brilliant ­pioneer, and it’s not surprising that his half-century-plus career has taken him a long way beyond the Body Farm, to extraordinary cases (often deemed “cold” and unsolvable) involving such difficult tasks as the reassembly of victims hurled skyward at an illegal fireworks ­factory and the correct identification of someone misnamed 25 years before.

Exciting stuff — or it would have been were Bass as good a writer as forensic scientist. But Cornwell, the CSIs and a number of other writers and programmes focusing on the subject, have done it all so much more stylishly and readably that ­really, alas, Bass’s contribution now seems stodgy and dull, dull, dull.

Such a pity: his stories of astonishing detection and deduction are all true and deserve a more eloquent and skilful presentation than this.

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