Alison Adam, A History of Forensic Science

Alison Adam, A History of Forensic Science (Oxford: Routledge 2016) 236 pp. £90 Hb. ISBN: 9780415856423

The history of forensics is certainly not a large field, but thus far 2016 has witnessed a bumper crop of forensic-centric history books. Alison Adam’s A History of Forensic Science joins David Arnold’s Toxic Histories: Poison and Pollution in modern India, Daniel Asen’s Death in Beijing: Murder and Forensic Science in Republican China and Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton’s Murder and the Making of English CSI. The appeal of forensics to scholars is not difficult to fathom. In recent years, forensics as a science specialism has attained an unprecedented level of visibility as a uniquely compelling example of applied science, serving as a spectacle of modern science’s truth-finding powers. However, as the historians above make clear, making tangible criminal mysteries is far from straightforward. Determining truth may be at the heart of forensic enterprises, but forensic science is far from simply detecting truth. Forensic knowledge is grounded in contingent and changing regimes of concepts, techniques, and institutions, the analysis of which reveals the contextual conditions in which ‘truth’ is negotiated and produced.

While offering a highly readable synthesis of existing, familiar narratives, Adams develops a range of new insights into British forensic culture in the first decades of the twentieth century.  In many ways, Adams deals with themes at the heart of science studies in her interdisciplinary examination of the changing landscape of forensic science, of the social production of scientific truth, and of shifting technologies of policing and detection. The chronology of this book is limited to the first half of the twentieth century, but advantegously, Adams does not stick to her precise time span, reaching back into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when necessary. Throughout, Adam is adept at keeping in view a variety of forensics actors, texts and knowledge-making practices, as she roots her discussion in a complex interweaving of regimes of science, technology and forensic-fact hunting.

The book is thematically rich and employs these themes to structure the work while maintaining a strong chronological footing. This thematic approach is effective, compellingly illustrating the complexities of and shifts in forensic culture during the twentieth century. Spanning the worlds of laboratories, courtroom, communication technologies, murder investigation, and print media, Adams explores a vast arena of forensic interactions. Chapter themes take account of (among other things): a reevaluation of the creation and co-production of scientific fact, witnessing and probability in law and in science; the influence of Europe and the empire on scientific criminology and criminalistics; the rise of forensic laboratories and ‘scientific aids’ in the discipline and regulation of detectives; and the two-way influence between crime/detective fiction and forensic science.

By resisting an internalist narrative of a scientific specialism, the multi-focused narrative traces the emergence and development of ‘[a] scientific approach in criminology, criminalistics and organization’ and its interconnectivity to ‘a wider technoscience of information, communications, media and transport technologies and scientific aids to criminal investigations’(9). Significantly, Adam’s approach declines exclusive adoption of one methodological perspective. Her commitment to being as she puts it ‘methodologically broad’ allows her to connect a specific instance of forensic culture to wide–ranging historical patterns and formations and broader socio-cultural contexts. This book, then, is genuinely interdisciplinary in complexion.

Readers of science and literature are most likely to be interested in Adam’s critical treatment of science, text, and media. Consider, for example, the sensational Crippen case of 1910, the only murder to feature as a case study. She revisits the well-known story of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and his lover Ethel Le Neve escaping his London home, where the body of his wife Cora Crippen was buried in its basement, to set sail for Canada on the SS Montrose. On reaching their destination, police officers arrested Crippen, and Le Neve. For Adam, the murder case highlights the complex, multi-layered and intertextual nature of forensic culture. The press and the public, for example, criminalized Crippen’s appearance as emblematic of a ‘born degenerate’, in many ways revising Victorian degenerationist understandings and popular treatments of Lombrosian criminology. At the same time, new forensic technologies loomed large in the Crippen narrative, in the way that the press also reported that Crippen was ‘captured by wireless.' At a  time when the media was embracing the possibilities of photo-journalism, the press dramatized and spectacularised the method of telegraphing photographs, a method that confirmed he was aboard ship. In contrast, the discursive registers of forensic expertise such as toxicology and pathology dominated and determined Crippen’s trial. By critically examining the different ways in which the Crippen case was shaped and re-shaped by different forensic ways of knowing, Adams calls for a more nunaced understanding of how a single case can be shaped by multiple forensic discourses that compel and structure popular and expert attention.

Similarly, Adams elucidates the textual ‘after-life’ of one of the founding texts of modern forensics: Hans Gross’s Criminal Investigation: A Practical Handbook for Magistrates, Police Officers, and Lawyers, a text that was first published in German in 1893.  For Adams, what was remarkable about Gross’s Handbook was not only its long-held relevance for successive communities of forensic practitioners but also the ways in which, at least its English translation, were ‘significantly rewritten, augmented and adapted with successive editions’, which in some respects went far beyond Gross’s original writing (67). The various editions ‘act as a mirror’ reflecting an array of notable developments in the policing of the empire and policing at home. Adams, in particular, argues that it was the demands of policing colonial India that triggered the translation, adaption, and dissemination of the English edition of Gross’s Handbook that was first published in Madras in 1905.

Significantly, too, Adams presents a more nuanced picture of the relationship between science and fiction. Moving away from a model of understanding that assumes a ‘two-way influence between crime/detective fiction and forensic science and vice versa,' Adams productively argues science and literature were firmly interwoven in a ‘common cultural imaginary’ (185).  A History of Forensic Science has much to say about the role of Sherlock Holmes in the cultural imagination. Compared with later fictional detectives like Richard Austin Freeman’s Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, there was little demonstration of the potential of the new scientific techniques for the solution of crimes in Sherlock Holmes mysteries. For Adams, as Holmes solved crimes by scientific deduction rather than scientific analysis and experimental enquiry, his contemporaneous cultural appeal was based less on his demonstration of tangible technique than the general possibilities of a deductive method of detection and reasoning. Lucidly written, based on extensive arhival research, and rigorously conceptualised, Adam's book paints a vivid picture of forensic science in the first half of the twentieth century as well as the wider culture in which it was embedded. I strongly recommend this book, not least for forensic scholars but also for those teaching and researching cultures of science and literature.

Dr Neil Pemberton, University of Manchester