1In this article we present Forensic Science FASP and aim to provide the first elementary notions of the composition of the substrat scientifique. After briefly defining the field, we move on to discuss Kathy Reichs, our chosen author, and three of the major components of the substrat scientifique present in her novels. We pay particular attention to the manner in which Kathy Reichs represents the physical environment of the forensic sciences, forensic and scientific procedure as well as the means through which scientific discourse is fictionalized. We finally conclude this article by analyzing the dyadic exchange found to be highly characteristic of the Reichs novels.
2In spite of the current popularity of forensic science in the entertainment media, ‘forensic science’ is both a term and a discipline elusive to define. This is due to its existence as a heterogeneous field composed not only of multiple scientific specialties (DNA analysis, meteorology, entomology, odontology, profiling, etc.), but also of numerous other sub-fields not usually associated with the sciences, such as art, history, linguistics, economics and accounting, to name but a few.
3The online Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘forensic’ as: “[…] pertaining to, connected with, or used in courts of law; suitable or analogous to pleading in court” and indicates that the origins of the term stem from the Latin term forensis, derived from the word forum designating a public place in Ancient Rome often used as a tribunal.
4Although both the law and the public are thus implied by the definition of the term, we lose track of the manner in which the commonly employed term forensics (with an ‘s’), has more recently come to be synonymous with the greater field of the forensic sciences. Given this common misappropriation, we suggest the following definition of the field of forensic science as the application of scientific knowledge to the analysis of physical evidence to obtain scientifically plausible explanations of crimes or civil actions for further legal exploitation. It is this acceptation of the term we apply to qualifying the sub-genre which is the object of this study as “forensic science FASP” (henceforth FS FASP) over the more commonly, but in our view, somewhat erroneous expression “forensics FASP”.
5Having defined the forensic sciences we now turn our attention to the manner in which the field is represented in fiction. The appearance of forensic science in fiction may be viewed as stemming from the early 19th century genre of detective fiction (Thomas 1999: 4). Furthermore, Thomas suggests that the scientific field of criminology developed not only in accordance with scientific discoveries of the 19th century, but also with early detective fiction to some extent inciting scientific development within this domain. In comparison, the modern-day sub-genre of FS FASP is almost purely influenced by the entertainment industry in which realist scientific discovery of our times proves to be one of its major features.
6For more than ten years of its existence the FASP, identified by Michel Petit in 1999, has firmly established itself as both a growing genre in popular fiction as well as a developing subject of academic enquiry in France. According to Petit, a FASP novel is:
- 1 “[t]out texte de fiction commerciale à grand succès (i) relevant généralement du thriller spécialis (...)
[a]ny bestselling novel i) usually belonging to the genre of specialized thrillers (legal, medical, technological etc.), ii) exploiting a specific professional environment, not only as a broad context for the story, but more specifically serving to generate most of the plot’s twists, iii) phrased in a language modelled on the linguistic practices (both lexical and discursive), of the professional environment portrayed, and iv) usually written by an author openly belonging to, or with links to this environment. (Petit 2000: 173-174; our translation)1
7The pivotal feature of the FASP is the substrat professionnel, or the professional environment, on which both character and plot development are highly dependent. Classically, FASP novels dating from the early 90’s are based on a single profession, hence the substrat professionnel. In more recent times, the FASP novel has evolved towards a more complex form in that other substrats or adstrats professionnel are often intewoven as analyzed by Jean-Pierre Charpy with reference to Robin Cook’s novel, Crisis (2006):
- 2 “Il s’agit plutôt du premier thriller où substrats professionnels médical, médico-légal et juridiqu (...)
It is rather the first thriller to skilfully combine a medical, forensic, and legal substrat professionnel. This blurring of boundaries between various genres does not appear to only affect medical FASP novels, but FASP productions on a more global scale. (Charpy 2010: 61; our translation)2
8This interdependence of several substrats and/or adstrats professionnels is also an underlying characteristic of the forensic FASP genre, a reflection of the composite nature of the discipline itself.
9Though legal FASP, medical FASP, financial FASP, etc., are well-represented professional domains of the genre, the existence of a truly representative scientific FASP sub-genre may surprisingly be more difficult to define. A first striking element is that the fictionalization of the pure sciences, such as chemistry, physics, botany, etc., is a relatively rare occurrence. Science and fiction, it would appear, blend to form another very well known literary genre, science fiction, the golden age of which was undoubtedly reached with the novels of Jules Verne. In a more contemporary perspective, one of the first so-called scientific FASP-like novels was surely Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), and in the movie industry Jurassic Park made its debut in 1993, sparking an interest in ‘pseudo’ scientific fiction which has ultimately culminated in a genre tending more towards science fiction than scientific fiction.
10Given the absence of a clearly identifiable scientific substrat professionnel together with the tendency towards the existence of multiple adstrats professionnels rather than a single dominant substrat professionnel, another difficulty which arises in attempting to define a scientific FASP genre would be to determine where the limits of science begin and end. One such example would be the newly defined and emerging eco-thriller (Biros 2010) and the genre-related questions it raises regarding whether it is to be considered as scientific FASP or as a genre of its own?
11Although this issue is beyond the scope of this study, the need to investigate the defining parameters of a potential scientific FASP genre and determine whether or not such a genre even exists, clearly needs to be addressed.
12It is often claimed that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series are the first literary representation of forensic sciences (Pesnot 1999). The genre as we know it today first emerged in the form of popular literary fiction in the early 1990s with the publication of Patricia Cornwell’s first novel, Body of Evidence (1991), introducing the best-selling Scarpetta series. This was followed shortly after by the first Tempe Brennan series by Kathy Reichs (Déjà Dead) and Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series (The Bone Collector), both of which appeared in 1997.
13Although a number of ‘one-off’ FS FASP novels exist pre-dating the 1990’s – as, for example, The Case of the Musical Cow by Erle Stanley Gardner in1957 and Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James in 1977, the existence of the genre can mainly be attributed to works of fiction published since the 1990s. In this respect, we note that FASP authors who were generally identified with other areas of substrat professionnel operated a genre shift towards a more forensic-based substrat professionnel, as is the case with Tess Gerritsen (a doctor-turned-novelist) who originally started her writing career producing romantic medical thrillers (Harvest 1996) and who, in 2001, shifted genre to begin publishing a FS FASP series to join the likes of Cornwall, Reichs and Deaver.
- 3 CSI, CSI Miami, New York, Las Vegas, Cold Case, Bones, NCIS – to name but a few popular forensic sc (...)
14Further to the rise of written FS FASP, an abundance of television series3 were similarly released in which the forensic sciences are foregrounded as an essential part of plot and character dynamics. These television series, dating back to the early 1990’s, show few signs of declining in popularity as they are now a global phenomenon spanning viewers worldwide.
15Despite the difficulty of defining a single scientific FASP genre, FS FASP can more easily be characterized as a separate sub-genre due to its presence in a large selection of both popular fiction and television series. Furthermore, we believe that Kathy Reichs’ work is most representative of the classic FASP author on which to base this introductory analysis of the substrat scientifique of FS FASP.
16Kathy Reichs’ scientific and professional background makes her emblematic of Petit’s observations relative to the prototypical FASP author – un professionnel-auteur (1999: 63), generally a former professional with insider knowledge of the fictionalized environnement spécialisé – as the author’s biographical summary shows:
Kathy Reichs: a board-certified forensic anthropologist, with forensic experience in both Canada, at the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale (LSJML) in Quebec province, as well as in the United States at the Chief Medical Examiners Office, in the State of North Carolina. Further to these impressive credentials, she is known to have been a faculty member at the University of North Carolina, served as a consultant to the United Nations Tribunal on Genocide in Rwanda (1999), and even assisted in victim identification after the 9/11 attacks. In addition to numerous scientific works published, Reichs has also succeeded in becoming the author of the bestselling Temperance Brennan series and more recently, has become producer of the hit Fox TV series Bones based on her Temperance Brennan novels (www.kathyreichs.com).
17The author’s professional credentials are constantly highlighted, on the back covers of her novels, on her website and even, at an implicit but nevertheless obvious level, through the credentials of her recurrent protagonist, Tempe Brennan, who seems to be her fictional alter ego – a powerful “marketing” strategy to enhance the professional credibility of the author and therefore of the specialized narrative itself.
18In the Brennan series the reader is introduced to an abundance of material related to detailed physical descriptions of the environment in which the forensic anthropologist labors. Through these descriptions the author constantly builds on and emphasizes the protean and multifaceted nature of forensic anthropology (as well as forensic science in general) in relation to criminal investigation.
19Concerning the forensic anthropologist and the specialized field of the forensic sciences, the reader is well equipped to infer the importance of on-site work at the crime scene as well as institutional involvement in investigations. Considering that the protagonist is an expert in forensic anthropology, the author constantly highlights the dual loci of the specialization, practical fieldwork in situ collecting the evidence and work in the scientific laboratory analyzing the data (Isani 2010: 6). Given their scientific orientation, Reichs’ novels give considerable importance to the latter locus presented through detailed descriptions of the laboratory, including descriptions of both the Coroner’s office in the USA and the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale in Canada which provide the reader with bi-cultural references to the professional and legal environments depicted. These references are reinforced by interweaving other related laboratories and organizations into the narrative fabric: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Fatal Voyage, p. 151) Service de l’identité judiciaire (206 Bones, p. 117), Division des scenes de crimes (206 Bones, p. 81), Service d’incendie (206 Bones, p. 165), LSJML: Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale (206 Bones, p. 17). Through such fictional representations, the author underscores the fact that the greater field of the forensic sciences consists of a vast and complex number of scientific communities that are required to function together in accordance to strict scientific and police protocol and within the framework of the American or Canadian justice systems.
20Given the bi-cultural ethos of Kathy Reichs’ novels and with regard to the specialized and/or professional institutions fictionalized, we note that these may further be divided into two sub-groups: firstly, representations of forensic laboratories associated with forensic or scientific analysis – histology lab, biology section, DNA section, autopsy suite, fire and explosives lab, ballistics department, crime lab as may be found in Déjà Dead (1997), Death du Jour (1999), Fatal Vouage (2001), Break No Bones (2006), Bones to Ashes (2007) and 206 Bones (2009); and secondly, references to bi-cultural representations of specialized units or departments related to either the Canadian or American justice system as demonstrated in the following extract:
In rural areas, law enforcement is handled by La Sûreté de Québec, or SQ. In places without provincial police, meaning all provinces except Ontario and Quebec, it’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP, or to Francophones, the Gendarmerie Royale du Canada, or GRC. Occasionally the Mounties are invited to an investigation in Quebec, but that’s rare. In other words, jurisdiction in La Belle Province can be as confusing as any American state. FBI. State bureau of investigation. City. County. Highway patrol. Sherriff’s department… (206 Bones 2009: 17)
- 4 The autopsy is a distinct procedure from the skeletal autopsy. According to the Britannica Online E (...)
- 5 The skeletal autopsy is carried out by a forensic anthropologist who is primarily concerned with th (...)
21Further to the physical environment, the Brennan series details scientific forensic procedure, systematically making reference to both the standard autopsy4 and the skeletal autopsy5. Although less ate ntion is paid to the standard autopsy (primarily featuring in earlier novels, Déjà Dead and Death du Jour), the author exploits these scenes to enhance professional descriptions related to the physical environment and to remind the uninitiated reader of roles played by different participants within the autopsy.
22Commonly, the forensic anthropologist is depicted as a silent observer witnessing the standard autopsy procedure. This inclusion of the forensic anthropologist as onlooker in the autopsy scene can be viewed as an intentional misrepresentation of reality and functions as a narrative pretext to explain and describe detailed observations to the reader from the perspective of an ‘external’ non-participatory onlooker. Considering that detailed descriptions of the standard autopsy are only present in Reichs’ first and second novels (Déjà Dead and Death du Jour), we may also infer that Reichs exploits this distortion of reality purposely to situate the reader in a field with which they have had little, or no experience.
23By combining perfunctory descriptions of injury with detailed accounts of scientific procedures and norms, the author equips the reader to infer the significance of formalized police and medical (forensic and scientific) procedure that is required to obtain judiciously sound evidence in criminal investigation. In this manner, the reader learns about both scientific methods and the scientific indicators that the forensic anthropologist relies on during the skeletal autopsy.
24Reichs commonly presents the skeletal autopsy to the reader by systematically covering the four fundamental characteristics of the specialty as detailed by the website of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), as the following comparative analysis between fact and fiction shows:
Fig. 1. What is the Practice of Forensic Anthropology? Fact and Fiction
Fact: American Board of Forensic Anthology
Fiction: Kathy Reichs
The analysis of skeletal, badly decomposed or otherwise unidentified human remains in both legal and humanitarian contexts. www.theabfa.org
Kathy Reichs: And what about the advanced putrefaction? I cut a second slice of bone from the highest intact point on the tibia, tagged and sealed it. If the foot remained unidentified I would attempt a more precise age estimate using histological features. (Fatal Voyage, p. 57)
Forensic anthropologists apply standard scientific techniques developed in physical anthropology to analyze human remains. www.theabfa.org
I removed the dismembered segments and arranged them in anatomical order on the stainless steel autopsy table in the middle of the room. (Déjà Dead, p. 22)
In addition to assisting in locating and recovering human skeletal remains, forensic anthropologists work to assess the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique features of the skeleton. www.theabfa.org
(Victim identification): Could I determine if the bones were human? Time since death? If recent, could I ascertain age, sex, race and height, and describe individuating characteristics for set of bones? Could I establish cause of death? (Bones to Ashes, p. 27-28)
Forensic anthropologists frequently work in conjunction with forensic pathologists, odontologists, and homicide investigators to identify a decedent, document trauma to the skeleton, and/or estimate the postmortem interval. www.theabfa.org
And no one works alone. While TV glamorizes the individual heroics of the lone scientist or detective, real police work involves the participation of many. (Break No Bones, p. 443)
25We also note that in certain novels such as Bones to Ashes (2008) and 206 Bones (2009), the author provides a further dimension of the profession by going beyond the basic principles of forensic anthropology and interweaving a range of realistic and contemporary ethical issues affecting the profession into the fictional narrative.
26In addition to placing emphasis on the scientific environment and forensic procedure, Reichs novels highlight the importance of inter-personal relations in the professional environment and successfully fictionalize the numerous forensic specialists and members of the police force who are called upon to interact with the protagonist in the exercise of her functions, thus bringing focus to bear on the network of associated specialties and investigative teams that mutually function together in an investigation. This directly brings into evidence the symbiotic interdependence that FS FASP has on other adstrats professionnels pertaining to the law, science and police procedure (Isani 2010: 10).
27In every book, the reader meets a standard group of characters whose line of duty coincides and intermingles with that of the protagonist and which draws attention to the heterogenic makeup of the field. These characters can broadly be divided into two categories.
28The group of forensic specialists consists of a large, heterogeneous representation of forensic scientists (including medical forensic experts) portrayed either as the protagonist’s immediate colleagues (and who reappear in subsequent novels) or as scientists who make a single appearance in a particular novel of the series.
29The author depicts the forensic sciences as a true multidisciplinary domain and brings together pathologists, laboratory technicians, radiologists, microbiologists, odontologists, histologists, computer analysts, photographers, profilers, laboratory staff, chemists and many other forensic science specialists that work together toward solving a given crime, as the following short extract from Déjà Dead demonstrates:
[a]mong the professionals employed by the LML, each a forensic specialist consulted for specific expertise. Neuropathology. Radiology. Microbiology. Odontology. (Déjà Dead, p. 39)
30It is such fictional interweaving of the protagonist’s interactions with other branches of forensic sciences that allows the reader to gain better insight into the protean and wide-ranging scope and nature of forensic sciences.
31This group includes a wide selection of police officers and detectivesdefined by their function in relation to either the Canadian or American law-enforcement and justice systems, and of which a standard group of officers commonly reappear in each novel.
32Although these non-forensic specialists are not to be considered as scientific forensic specialists per se, they can be viewed as professionals familiar with police procedure related to scientific forensic procedure. As such, the non-forensic specialist can be considered as an essential member of the greater team of professionals involved in criminal investigation, once more underlining the nature in which police procedure and forensic analysis work hand-in-hand. While Reichs makes numerous inferences to varying participants in the police force in all of the series studied – policemen, detectives, sniffer or cadaver dogs, recovery teams, body trackers, sheriffs, death investigators and undercover task forces – she most commonly pairs her protagonist with Detective Andrew Ryan who, in addition to being both colleague and romantic interest, also plays the key role in the fictional narrative of the lay person on whom hinge the author’s strategies regarding reader accessibility.
33Although most of the forensic professionals, institutions and units are introduced to the reader through indirect and nondescript techniques such as listing and inference, the author commonly explains complex forensic procedure itself through detailed dyadic exchanges involving two participants. Dyadic exchanges in Kathy Reichs’s novels may be broadly categorized as asymmetrical or dissymmetrical according to the roles allocated to the participating characters, the former occurring between two fictional professional scientific participants, each independently representing different scientific specialties, and the latter as an exchange between two fictional characters, one of whom is a specialist (usually the protagonist) and the other a semi-lay person.
34The exchange of information in the asymmetrical dyadic exchange is most commonly achieved through the introduction of the scientific expert of other disciplines. Most often, these specialist characters take the form of external specialists, existing independently of the fictionalized investigation, and with whom the protagonist consults when requiring additional scientific expertise.
35As mentioned previously, one of the main defining characteristics of the FASP genre pertains to the professional and/or specialized environment on which plot development is dependent. This particularity of the FASP brings into question the manner in which the reader gains access to the specialized factual content of FS FASP. With regard to FS FASP, the substrat professionnel being related to scientific principles, the question arises of how the author resolves the classic conundrum of maintaining a high level of scientific content and discourse while at the same time ensuring reader accessibility to such content and discourse, (Isani 2009).
36In their study of narratorial implicatures, Mullins and Dixon explain that “[…] the narrator’s attitude towards events in the story world determines how they are represented and processed by the reader” (2007: 263). They also emphasize that “[…] when critical information is marked by the narrator, readers better remember the information and make inferences as a function of the attitude of the narrator to story world events” (2007: 262). Due to the frequent inclusion of scientific content exploited in the fictional narrative within the Brennan series, the reader is essentially obliged to rely on indicators present in the narrative, provided by the author, to guide them toward a better understanding of the representations of scientific fact.
37When considering the uncanny similarities that Reichs shares with her protagonist, the relationship between the narrator – in this particular case the protagonist – and the author, can be shown to be synonymous. It is this relationship that renders the reader wholly dependent on both the fictional protagonist-as-narrator and Reichs’ professional status as forensic anthropologist and author.
38A final, yet substantial consideration concerns the reader and the degree of technicality inherent to the substrat professionnel. Based on the high degree of specialization within the discipline of forensic anthropology and related forensic sciences, we have seen that one of the challenges faced by the author is to communicate and outline not only fundamental descriptions of the professional milieu but also scientific principles governing forensic anthropology and related scientific disciplines, all the while keeping this diverse readership in mind.
39FASP authors deploy a number of strategies to transfer specialist scientific content to the lay reader, the most straightforward no doubt being the use of the omniscient narrator. Though the omniscient narrator narrative technique is used by Kathy Reichs to explain scientific principles to the lay reader, her use of the dyadic exchange provides for a more interesting avenue of exploration.
40Contrary to the asymmetrical dyadic exchange involving two fictional scientific participants, each independently representing distinct scientific specialties, the dissymmetrical dyadic exchange is observed to be the most common exchange present in the Brennan series, taking place between the fictional protagonist (who acts as the main source of specialist knowledge) and a lay character, fulfilling the enunciative role of a non-scientifically trained individual. Despite frequently including a semi-lay character who, to some extent, is acquainted with this specialized field (such as Detective Andrew Ryan), we nevertheless consider this character to be representative of the reader who has no experience in the field.
“Look at this.” I indicated a collection of loosely arranged cranial fragments. The men stepped to the table. For Ryan’s benefit, I kept it simple. “These bones formed the base of Lassie’s skull, the part that sat directly on top of his spinal column.” With one gloved finger, I traced a crack that traversed several fragments in a curvilinear pattern. “This fracture extends anteriorally—” I caught myself slipping into jargon. (206 Bones, p. 68)
41This form of exchange is additionally a lengthy source of scientific description presented to the reader in a step-like manner in which the author employs a varied range of narrative techniques that implicitly serve to draw the reader’s attention to the author’s professional status as specialist and highlight the authenticity of the fictional narrative.
42As the dissymmetrical exchange evolves, descriptions containing scientific content increase in complexity through the dense manner in which scientific information appears. This is reiterated and dependent on the manifestation of the scientific term where the author commonly uses a single scientific term to introduce a cascade of associated terms that intentionally provide the reader with a complex rendition of the scientific topic exploited.
Lay character: “What’s a false start?”
Specialist: “When the blade first enters it forms a trough, or kerf, with corners at the original striking surface. As the saw moves deeper and deeper into the bone, the initial corners become walls and the kerf forms a distinct floor. Like a trench. If the blade jumps out, or is pulled out, before going all the way through the bone, the kerf that’s left behind is known as a false start. A false start contains all kinds of information. Its width is determined by the width of the saw blade and the set of its teeth. A false start will also have a characteristic shape in cross section, and the teeth of the blade may leave marks on the walls.” (Déjà Dead, p. 167)
43Although it may be observed that the author occasionally attempts to relativize scientific content for the reader through the exploitation of figures of speech (mainly similes), contrary to expectations of popular fiction, Kathy Reichs seldom employs overtly popularized strategies to cater for her readership in the dissymmetrical exchange, and in this manner naturally reinforces her status as specialist.
Lay character: “So what do you have?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and trying to look at me at the same time.
Specialist: “Isabelle Gagnon’s bones have quite a few false starts. The kerfs measure about .05 of inches in width and have floors that, in most cases, have some dip to them. Harmonics are present, and there are bone islands. Both are measurable.” I flipped a page. “There’s some exit chipping.”
Lay character: “What does all that mean?” (Déjà Dead, p. 169-170)
44Finally, as the dissymmetrical dyadic exchange develops between specialist and fictional lay character it culminates in a crescendo of naïve questions and specialized responses. Extract 2 demonstrates that the narratorial strategies to provide scientific descriptions to the reader can largely be viewed as contradictory to communication accommodation theories (CAT), defined by Howard (2009) as:
[t]he manner in which participants adjust their communication patterns vis-à-vis each other. CAT more specifically sets out the conditions under which individuals either reduce or emphasize the social and linguistic distance between those with whom they are interacting.
45Kathy Reichs may thus be seen to intentionally provide over-complex scientific descriptions in a non-accommodating manner in response to the naïve questions raised by the lay character. The abundance of such dyadic occurrences throughout the Brennan series allows us to consider that although the dissymmetrical dyadic certainly serves an important narratorial function in that it is a more interactional and dynamic means of rendering specialized content accessible to the lay-reader, it also serves the equally important purpose of reinforcing the professional status of the author as ‘the specialist’.
46Through the preceding study, we hope to have provided insight to the first characteristic elements currently contributing to the composition of the substrat scientifique in FS FASP. Although we have mainly focused our attention on Kathy Reichs’s novels, it is intended that future avenues of research would include alternative sources of popular fiction already alluded to in this article. Likewise, it is expected that later analyses of televised forensic science series would further complement and contribute to the composition of FS FASP. Having identified the dyadic exchange as being a highly characteristic trait of the substrat scientifique in the Reichs novels, it may additionally be pertinent to further analyze the dyadic exchange to elaborate on the manner in which the author exploits character roles to communicate scientific content to the reader.
47Furthermore, we have attempted to reinforce the legitimacy of our analyses of Kathy Reichs’s novels demonstrating her works to be rich sources of professional, cultural as well as linguistic references which contribute to FS FASP. It is our opinion although this study has provided elementary notions pertaining to the composition the substrat scientifique, suitable evidence has been provided to substantiate more in depth future analyses of this topic.