CSI: Athenai

When you write in the ancient world, all the standard forensic devices of the last 100 years disappear. No DNA, no fingerprints, no microscopes, no clever chemical analysis.

This is incredibly liberating. Mysteries are puzzle books at their core. It’s wonderful for me to be able to concentrate on the puzzle without having to worry if my byzantine plot might have been solved in the first ten pages with some obvious piece of forensics. Far from enhancing modern mysteries, forensics has put a tight envelope around what the author can do without looking silly. It’s a particular problem for cozies. Cozy authors must sometimes go to ridiculous lengths, or fudge outrageously, to find a reason why the Chocolate Cake Killer couldn’t have been found before the end of chapter one with a quick sweep for DNA (saliva on the cake crumbs...).

A particular trap is to translate back into ancient times, techniques which are not outright impossible, but which assume a diagnostic practice far in advance of known science. It's not impossible for someone in Classical Athens to take a plaster cast of the killer's footprint, to match it with the suspects' sandals in search of the one with the diamond shaped pebble lodged in the right heel, but seriously, this is a stretch, and it tries to turn ancient investigations into a poor man's copy of modern ones.

A real-life Nicolaos would tread in the footprint beside the body, ignoring the killer's blood drops and those smudgy marks on the handle of the knife and the hairs caught between the victim's fingers during the struggle, as he walks to the nearest well to see if someone had dropped in a curse tablet. Because a curse tablet might be important evidence. In his defence, the real-life Nico would note from the footprints that there was a single killer, that he used a knife, and that there was a struggle.

Conversely the ancient detective has opportunities that a modern detective could never imagine. In an age when everything is hand-crafted, you can pick up any item and trace it back to the artisan who made it, if you're persistent enough. Indeed to this day an expert on ancient pottery can tell you in which city a particular piece was made. Believe it or not, if it's from Athens, they can sometimes narrow it down to which workshop made the pot!

A bowyer can examine a bow and tell you everything there is to know about its flight characteristics. An armorer can tell from the binding if a spear was made by a left or right handed man. Try doing that with mass production.

To cut the dead is deeply sacrilegious, so no autopsies, but any man could glance at a fatal wound to tell you what sort of blade made it. Every Athenian man has served in an army that used nothing but edged weapons. Everyone has seen plenty of corpses and know what happens to them over time. For the same reason, blood spatter patterns are all too familiar.

Few poisons are known, but those few are known well, and a trip to the local pharmakis will tell you everything you need. Every city mints its own coins, and the designs changed over time. You can tell more from a dropped ancient coin than a modern.

There's an extremely high reliance placed on eyewitness testimony, which is valued above all else in court, while physical evidence is looked upon as a bit dodgy -- the exact opposite of a modern court.

Clothing runs to a standard form but the decoration is totally individual. There's no such thing as identical T-shirts or anonymous suits. Sandal and clothing decoration had styles which can be spotted.

A sculptor can glance at a piece of marble and tell you which quarry it came from. Painters make their own paints. A silver armband can be identified as Phoenician from the imagery alone. The body with the blue tattoos across half his face is probably not from Athens.

I try to play to the strengths of the period. Don't try to turn ancient forensics into faux-modern. Instead, try very hard to see it the same way someone of the times would, and deliberately go for the evidence which is most different from modern expectation. It's a great way to give readers a tour of the ancient world while sticking tight to the plot line.


Lexi said...

Who would investigate a murder in ancient Athens? Did they have a police force?

Loretta Ross said...

Science was used in some surprising ways, though, wasn't it? I saw a TV special on forensics many years ago that claimed the first use of forensics was something like 3,000 years ago in Asia.

A large group of men were harvesting something with scythes when one of them was found murdered with one. The official examined all the men's tools, but they were all clean to the naked eye, so he ordered them to lay them on the ground. The murder weapon still had traces of blood on it that attracted insects.

Your point is well-made, though! Kind of goes along with the whole "modern man in the past" rule we were discussing earlier. (I've renamed my version of that rule, btw, the "Mind Out of Time Rule".)

Gary Corby said...

Lexi, that's an excellent question...and the subject of a post I planned to write. I think I'll make it the next one...hang in there for the slightly strange answer answer.

Stephanie Thornton said...

This is totally intriguing, but then I'm a forensics nerd. I planned to go into biological archaeology before I realized I needed a job to pay the bills- it's amazing what info you can glean from a body. And I was only playing with the bones- to have the body in situ gives you even more to go on.

I can see how it would be more fun to write a mystery without the help of modern technology. Have you ever written a scene where you wished Nico had access to any modern forensics?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta,

Ah, I know what you're referring to. It's from the first book ever written about forensics, from mediaeval China, so it's a bit advanced by ancient mystery standards. It's called The Washing Away Of Wrongs, by Song Ci. Yes, it's a great source of ideas, and the fly idea surely works.

Thanks for reminding me. I'd forgotten all about that and I should have mentioned it.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie! Are you all packed for the holiday?

I can honestly say I've never regretted the lack of forensics. It's a wonderful opportunity to be more inventive. Nico has, at one point, used the well known fact that a corpse lets go of its bladder to help solve a puzzle (I have to be careful about spoilers here...). And he's asked for help from experts on numerous occasions, which every time is a wonderful permit to write exposition, which is normally evil, but since the subjects are exotic I can get away with it (I hope...you kind readers will be the ones to tell me that).

John Roberts in the SPQR books has a character who's a Greek doctor working for a gladiator school, who therefore is familiar with every conceivable wound. It was an inspired way to get in a pathology expert! But I've never felt the need.

Elizabeth said...

Only remotely related, but forensics aren't that helpful in most modern cases, either.

For example: I can't tell you how many TV shows I've seen where the CSI whizzes are able to pull fingerprints from an oft-touched surface, like a door knob. In real life, there's next to zero chance that a usable fingerprint could be pulled off a door knob. Too many people touch door knobs! (Heck, only about 7% of firearms have usable fingerprints on them.)

Then there's my favorite, DNA evidence. First, it's not infallible: it can be corrupted, and it can also be faked. Oh, and complete strangers can have similar DNA profiles -- similar enough to create the potential for a wrongful conviction. Second, DNA evidence is only useful if you have a suspect that you can take a sample from, or if, by luck, there's a matching DNA profile already in the system. It's not like there's a Universal DNA Bank out there, with DNA samples from everyone who's ever lived, that crime scene evidence can be compared to.

And then there's the fact that clever killers, who tend to be well-versed in investigative tactics, know that the police's ability to solve a murder is severely hampered if they never find the crime scene. I.e., dump the body far away from where you do the actual killing, and the crucial physical evidence is going to get lost pretty fast. (Especially if it rains.)

Bottom line, police work still relies on the old-fashioned stuff. And lots of real-life crime never gets solved. (Unsolved murder cases in the United States, per year: about 37-40%.)

Basically, if you ever want to put a cop, lawyer, or judge in a bad mood, ask them about the CSI Effect. Those shows make crime-solving look easy and scientific, and it's not.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Elizabeth, the CSI Effect you describe happens in books too! I think readers do expect forensics to work every time. It's an interesting problem. I can imagine the day when every baby has a DNA sample taken at birth. Rising population pressure might well force it, despite the obvious threat to liberty.

Elizabeth said...

Really, I'm surprised there's not already a widespread debate about whether we should take DNA samples from everyone. I'm guessing it's because there's not yet a widespread understanding of what DNA evidence actually is.

Gary Corby said...

Britain tried something similar: everyone potentially involved in a crime was DNA profiled and the results kept even if they were innocent. There was a huge outcry.

Awall said...

I work for a very small municipality's police force. I'm a computer IT,so I'm not an officer. But I have lots of conversations with the officers about the "high tech" equipment that "helps to solve crime". First of all, most of the officers know how to use the computer as a "front end" communication device. But few municipal officers are going to be very savvy with the kind of technology that we see on CSI shows. In fact, the Chief of Police once told me that the "facial recognition" we see on television is "fantasy". Crimes down at the cozy local level are by and large, still solved by the cops being more "in the know" on the street. They know the information sources because they are involved on a daily basis with the locals, and have a word of mouth information network with officers in other towns, cities and county. It's a word dropped here or there that solves local crimes. So I think that St. Mary Mead is still a valid locale for "cozy" writing.

Gary Corby said...

I'm 100% sure you're right, Awall!

The difference is the expectation of the audience, who believe CSI is that powerful, even if it isn't. A courtroom lawyer could tell you they have problems these days too with juries who expect a good CSI show.

But yes, in real life St Mary Mead is alive and well.