Forensics: Truth & Fiction?

I enjoy forensic shows, so recently I picked up a book in which the author, Connie Fletcher, interviews crime scene investigators, forensic specialists, homicide detectives. The interviews themselves are very interesting, ranging from advice to stories (true to form, I prefer the stories), but the introduction by the author very nearly put me off the entire book.

To summarize, the introduction basically says, "All that stuff on CSI shows, well, it looks clever, but it isn't REALLY the way things happen. And I went out and interviewed REAL forensic scientists, and here's the REAL scoop."

I don't get this attitude at all. I've run into it before--people who think that all fiction is basically deceitful, and therefore in need of being unmasked, showed up. Well, yes, fiction is deceitful--that's why it's fiction. I wouldn't watch forensic shows if the tests took the ordinary amount of time they do in real life. I wouldn't watch them if there wasn't some kind of consistent storyline either. I quite enjoy the occasional CSI:LV that gives you four cases in one episode (the one with the bodies conversing in the morgue is classic). But in general, I don't expect the kind of reality that, well, you find in reality. It's drama! It isn't supposed to be real.

Which doesn't mean that fiction shouldn't have a patina of reality. The ability to get the reader/viewer to (really) believe in the fictional world is part of the artist's goal. The enormous irony is how much this worries the spit out of humanities majors (the author describes herself as "English major-y"). Oh, my goodness, all those viewers out there who are being hoodwinked by shows that make forensics look more glamorous or more grim or more superficial (I couldn't figure out exactly what the author's beef was) than it really is. It's as if our colleges and universities are producing an entire generation of humanities graduates who are about as left-brained/anti-fiction oriented as anyone since Plato got into a fuss about the influence of plays on the young.

Newsflash, people--fiction is supposed to lie, enchant, bamboozle, astonish. One of my favorite movies is Galaxy Quest; one of my favorite scenes is when the Tim Allen character has to explain to the alien commander that his show (a take-off of Star Trek) is a lie ("Explain it to him in words a child could understand."); yet, at the end of the movie, Galaxy Quest (the television show) has been revived. The dangers of fiction are weighed against its joys and found less important, not because the dangers don't exist but because a world without fiction is, let's face it, dull. It is a world run not by accountants, which I wouldn't mind so much, but by well-meaning products of higher education. And, speaking as one, that I do mind. (Woe to that generation that replaces our superficial, grim, and sometimes downright stupid television programming with high-minded dramas addressing issues of class, race, and gender alongside accompanying disclosures of said dramas' underlying ideologies as well as their purposes and applications--a curse upon your heads!)

In any case, as I've been reading through the book's interviews, I've been amused by, yep, I'll say it, how accurate the shows actually are. I had figured that most of what I saw on television was hyperbole. I didn't realize how much detecting forensic specialists do. To be honest, I kind of figured the shows greatly expanded a minor role in crime investigation to create the CSIs we know and love. But no, CSIs as separate entities within the investigation heirarchy do in fact exist and do descend upon the scene after the cops go in. They even occasionally interview suspects (rather than leaving all interviews up to the cops--that truly surprised me). A couple of the stories read like episodes (and may have been the original inspirations; television writers are notorious borrowers). There truly are a huge number of specialists. You truly can squirt stuff that illuminates blood stains. Many of the stories are way stranger than anything that shows up on television (nobody would believe them). Some of the specialists are as seriously off-kilter as Greg or Grissom or Bones. Cases have been clinched with evidence as minor as a scrap of cloth or teeth found in a fire. All in all, I've been impressed--the patina of truthfulness on CSI shows is more than a patina; it is actually based on legitimate research.

But again, in terms of fiction, what matters is the patina, not the research. Do the viewers believe? Does the story work? Do the characters live for us? Do we care about them? Are we carried away by the work? Are we satisfied? That is what matters. Which isn't to say that people are always satisfied by fictional pieces. But the problem lies in the realm of artistry, creativity, not to mention plotting, NOT in the differences between reality and the "lie." Leave that sort of "I'm SO appalled" attitude to the politicians. Leave the fun of the thing to the rest of us.


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