Written on the Skin by Liz Porter

I’ve never been particularly interested in crime novels, mysteries, or courtroom dramas, and until I listened to the Serial podcast, true crime was also on the ‘not particularly interested’ list. But there was something about the meticulously produced Serial that sucked me in (and it wasn’t just Sarah Koenig’s dulcet tones). Since that time, I’ve listened to other true crime podcasts and read a few books.

Liz Porter’s book, Written on the Skin – An Australian Forensic Casebook grabbed my attention because of the chapters on the use of DNA testing in forensic science – genes are always interesting!

The book explores advances made in forensic science with reference to particular cases – this is where the massive improvements in DNA testing in the 80s and 90s changed the game. ‘Reading’ teeth, bones, and skin are also covered. Porter uses cases where forensic evidence sealed the guilty or not-guilty verdict (there are many cases where people have been wrongly jailed, only for DNA testing years later to reveal a not-guilty status).

Although the book includes many high-profile cases, such as Lindy ChamberlainJaidyn Leskie and the ‘body in the freezer’, there are lots that are unusual or lesser known. Porter researched her book by asking forensic scientists about their most ‘memorable’ cases – that would have made for good dinner party conversation…

I’m not going to give a detailed review of this book (you’ll either be keen to read 400+ pages about forensic science, or not) but I will say that it is well-written; makes for riveting reading; and isn’t loaded with unnecessarily gratuitous or grisly detail. Porter gives clear summaries of the science behind particular aspects of forensic investigation and the roles of the various people involved – for example, I never knew that a forensic entomologist was a specific job.

While I was reading Written on the Skin, a real-time bit of DNA forensics hit the news – the arrest of the person suspected to be the notorious Golden State killer – a snotty tissue chucked in a bin was his undoing.

4/5 Fascinating.

One of the cases mentioned in the book was solved by identifying teeth marks in a piece of Haigh’s nougat. Brilliant.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 6): Belfast 11°-22° and Melbourne 10°-19°.

19 responses

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  2. Ooh I love reading about crime and investigations, I’ll take a look. Two that I particularly enjoyed are Forensic by Val McDermid and All That Remains: A Life in Death by Professor Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist.

  3. I’ll stick to crime fiction. I’m sure I already know more than I need to about forensics and I don’t even watch the CSIs (are they still on?) including how quickly bodies get infected with bugs – which I think is what a ‘forensic entomologist’ studies.

    • I don’t watch CSI either… there’s a lot in this book about what they do in CSI versus what they actually do in real life forensics! The entomologists use the bugs to estimate how long someone has been dead (by the size of the maggots – and this varies greatly between species); and where they died (different bugs indicate body has been moved etc).

  4. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from Tales of the City to Norwegian Wood | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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