I’ve been dipping into another old handbook on forensic medicine. This one is by Johann Ludwig Casper. It’s called A Handbook of the Practice of Forensic Medicine, and it was translated into English by George William Balfour. The third edition, which is the one I’ve been referring to, dates from 1861 and is freely available on google books.
Now and then, I’m asked about the developments in forensic science, and whether my decision to write historical crime fiction had anything to do with an antipathy towards modern crime solving technology. When a crime can be solved by a DNA sample, what role is there left for the old-fashioned detective to play?
There might be something in that. But what’s interesting from reading Casper is that there has always been this sense of the advance of forensic science, even in his day. His book may seem quaint and antiquanted to us, given the high-tech world of CSI. But the distance between him and his predecessors is almost equally great, as this short section from his preface to Volume I shows:
“In this book, as in all my public lectures for the last thirty-six years, I have specially striven against the prime failing of most authors on forensic medicine, viz., the separation of it from general medicine, and endeavoured to purify it from all irrelevant rubbish, which has so copiously accumulated in it by tradition… Questions, such as those we find treated of in the older writers – as, “Was Adam a hermaphrodite?” or, “Can a woman be got with child by the devil?” are certainly no longer to be met with; but the echoes of real sophistries, in which the medicina forensic was so rich, contemptibly-crafty “ifs” and “buts,” are still to be found lingering even in writing of the most modern date.”
I don’t know about you, but those are two questions to which I would dearly love to know the answer. And perhaps that’s the real reason why I am drawn to writing historical crime. Not so much because of a technophobic reaction against modern day forensics, but more because of a genuine fascination with the questions and concerns of an age long gone.