Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Experts or is it all done with smoke and mirrors?

Murder in the Palais Royal, my tenth book in the Aimée Leduc Investigation series came out yesterday. When I began writing I never thought I’d finish a book much less set it in Paris or write a series.

    I wasn’t a doctor, a policewoman, a sketch artist or with the FBI. I was a mom, a preschool teacher and had old friends in Paris. The total sum of my qualifications apart from reading and loving mysteries. It was a bit like the photo above of Harry Houdini - you can just see the white speck of his pants - jumping manacled from the morgue walls into the Seine.
   But friends have friends, and their introductions in Paris opened doors. In my case doors to private detectives, police, and local cafe owners. Over the years I’ve built up these connections, nourished them with bottles of wine over dinner and running possible scenarios by these experts, some of whom have become friends.
"I want you to get it right," a retired Commissaire once told me. "If you’re writing a book set in Paris, a real city, you need to get the police system and all the details correct."
I appreciate that and the time he takes meeting with me and talking.

    Ok so many of us kill people on the page - some for a living - but in my case it pays for my habit. Going to Paris and doing research. There’s so much I don’t know, I tell my husband, so I have to visit the archives, libraries, interview computer hackers etc. he just nods. “I know.”
In Paris on the cobblestones, in the metro I get a spark of a story, a detail, overhear a conversation I’d never hear otherwise. 
Yet when I come home to San Francisco my research isn’t done. Experts abound here and it’s about forming relationships and making contacts to ‘get it right.’ Years ago, maybe book three, I met Dr. Terri Haddix through the SF Medical Examiners office when I had autopsy questions. She volunteered to talk to me - little did she know - and I haven’t let go of her since. She’s been an amazing resource, patient beyond belief, with a great sense of humor. Not only that she has two Corgis who send my family a Christmas card every year.
I’ve run ideas by Terri, asked her questions, proposed plausible and implausible medical scenarios and generally badgered her over the writing of many books. Terri holds two jobs and wears two hats. She is a forensic pathologist in a independent crime lab in the East Bay and at Stanford University works as a neuropathologist. 
    A busy woman. The best time for Terri to talk happens during her more than one hour commute each way from home to each of her jobs.
When I told her I’d like to blog about what she does and the common misconceptions of her job from shows like CSI, she laughed. In her work at the crime lab, she is most often asked to offer an opinion based on an autopsy performed by someone else. In her words, her ability to render an opinion is only as good as the documentation she receives. People don’t often know that, she said. And the cause of death is not the manner of death but quite different. For example Terri gave the example of a body found in water. Arriving at the conclusion that the person drowned is not necessarily difficult, but how that drowning came to occur is another thing – that is the manner. Did the person voluntarily enter the water? Was that for the purpose of recreation or self destruction? Was the person in the water against their will – were they forced into the water or not permitted to leave? While she would look for evidence of a struggle or some other investigative information to help clarify this – sometimes an opinion to a reasonable degree of certainty cannot be reach and the manner remains undetermined.
There is often confusion in the lay press between cause of death and manner of death. A manner of death of undetermined does not mean that the cause of death is unknown, just the means by which the death occurred cannot be determined. 
Terri’s worked on many cases, given testimony and depositions in her vast experience. But I asked her about her most intriguing autopsy - was there one in which at first it looked one way and ended up totally different from her first impressions.
Oh yes, she said and as she told the story, I heard pride in her voice. The true story was tragic, a relatively young man goes for outpatient surgery. He does well and returns home that day, the next morning he’s unresponsive and dies later that day. Terri was asked to give an opinion on the cause of death. The documentation given to her arrived in dribs and drabs – some indication that there was a brain hemorrhage. Her autopsy didn’t indicate that though. Through sheer persistence she kept requesting the complete medical records as the picture wasn’t clear.
Finally, one of the medical records offered some insight – the young man had been discharged after the surgery with a pump for administration of pain medication. Nearly simultaneously the toxicology report returned indicating a high level of a pain medication in his blood. Eventually with multiple inquiries, the pump was found, interrogated and a sample of the contained medication analyzed. The pump worked perfectly, but the original settings of the pump had been wrong resulting in an excessive administration of the medication.
Terri had put together the evidence step by step and independently arrived at the premature cause of death of this young man. But she found the investigative aspects rewarding - going beyond the surface, asking and asking questions, following up and re-examining evidence which paid off. Like a real detective.
So I posed a real life scenario to Terri and asked her opinion. On my last research trip to Paris, I visited the Police Prefecture (Inspector Maigret’s old haunt) and was lucky enough to spend several hours with the Crime Scene Unit. One intriguing story came from Francois, the crime scene sketch artist/photographer. The juge d’instruction, like our DA, had asked Francois to recreate a crime scene and photograph the reconstruction. In this instance, the Metro (subway)station at Bastille and train tracks into the Metro tunnel. Francois showed me the digital photos of his reconstruction (taken at night after the Metro had closed) and related the events. A drug dealer, known to the police, had kept his stash in a crevice of the Metro tunnel just past the Bastille station platform. When what was left of the drug dealer’s body (no need for details but you can imagine) appeared in parts on the train in the next station the police began an investigation. The investigation went before the juge d’instruction and her job was to find out whether a homicide or an accident had occurred. 
So I asked Terri the options she would consider in this case - what would lead her to determine this man’s death an accident or homicide?  
First, she’d look for the point of impact in the tunnel.
 If that could be determined from trace evidence she’d try to determine from the recovered body if the person was lying down on the tracks which could indicate suicide or he’d been killed and left there. From the injuries she could discover if the body had turned away, the train sideswiping him indicating an accident. Most important would be to talk to the train driver and learn what he’d witnessed and when he’d stopped the train. Then do tissue toxicology on the remains to test for drugs.
But even if this man was under the influence of drugs, it could be framed in many ways, foul play, a deal gone wrong or an accident. Terri again went back to the fact that an investigator can’t truly arrive at an informed conclusion without an integrated approach incorporating the crime scene reconstruction, physical evidence and medical findings.
By the time I heard Terri’s garage door open I knew we’d talked her whole commute! What about you? Do you have people in the field you consult and talk to?
Cara - Tuesday


  1. That was truly fascinating, Cara. I did know the difference between cause and manner of death; when one of my children was in college a student fell from a balcony at a high rise dorm. The cause was obvious but the manner was much more difficult to determine. Was it a suicide, an accident, or a deliberate act by another person? I guess death by suicide would have been the hardest for the parents to take but the manner of death was ruled an accident due to intoxication. Was that better than thinking someone else had been responsible? When ever I hear of something like that on a campus, I have to think, "There but for the grace of God, go I."

    My kids aren't a reckless bunch but there is that mind/ common sense disconnect in young people that makes parents crazy as they wonder if their young people are going to get to be old people.


  2. Congrats on the new book release! I'm looking forward to the arrival of my first read in your series, Murder in the Bastille.

    This is a fascinating post. I have not delved this deeply into the murder world yet in my writing, but there is an expert I hope to utilize more--Lee Lofland. He wrote a fantastic book for writers: Police Procedure & Investigation. He is also very accessible through his website and blog, and he lives near me.

    Best of luck in this newest publiation.


  3. Hi Cara,

    Interesting story, forensic's is fascinating.

    Congratulations on the release of Murder at The Palais Royale!