Stranger Than Fiction

May 2018

The Origins of the CSI Effect

By Dean Jobb

Cordoned-off murder scenes, examined and recorded in minute detail. The systematic collection of traces of blood and other evidence. Profilers and other experts at the ready, to help make sense of it all and suggest who was capable of committing the crime.

We take it for granted that sleuths and the scientists who support their work will find and analyze the clues needed to bring criminals to justice. We’ve seen it happen thousands of times, in news reports of trials and criminal investigations or in detective novels, movies, and CSI-focused television shows.

But today’s detection techniques—even the concept that a crime scene is a place to be preserved as a source of valuable evidence and clues—took time to develop, and longer to gain widespread acceptance. The first handbook for British police officers did not appear until 1881 and offered little guidance beyond the obvious. “When a dead body is found,” Scotland Yard chief Howard Vincent’s Police Code and Manual of the Criminal Law advised, “it should never be touched . . . until the arrival of a Sergeant or Inspector.” The duties of these higher-ups once they arrived, however, remained a mystery.


Murder_Making_English_CSIBritish academics Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton explore the origins of crime scene investigation in Murder and the Making of English CSI (Johns Hopkins University Press). Sherlock Holmes was meticulously measuring footprints and collecting cigar ash on the page, they remind readers, before most real-world detectives caught up with his fictional exploits.

“It was only over the course of the last hundred years or so that the crime scene came to be understood . . . as a distinct space,” they write, the domain of professional forensic investigators and governed by “explicit rules of practice.” Arthur Conan Doyle fans will recall Holmes’s complaint, in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” that careless police officers had trampled the ground surrounding a murder victim like “a herd of buffalo,” almost obliterating the killer’s footprints.

This deeply researched book begins with the pioneering work of Hans Gross, the Austrian magistrate and author of Criminal Investigation: A Practical Handbook—a how-to guide designed, as Gross put it, “for all engaged in investigating crime.” The handbook was first published in German in 1893—six years after the debut of Conan Doyle’s scientific detective—and was not translated into English until 1906.

“Everything may be of importance and nothing too small or insignificant to have a decisive bearing upon the case,” Gross cautioned investigators, echoing Sherlock Holmes’s mantra on the potential significance of trifles. “An object an inch or two to the left or right . . . a little dust, a splash of dirt easy to efface, may all turn out to be of the first importance.”

Burney and Pemberton, researchers with the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, focus on the investigation of two major homicide cases decades apart—the gruesome dismemberment of Emily Kaye in 1924 and the 1950s arrest of London serial killer John Christie.

The Kaye case marked the emergence of Bernard Spilsbury as a new kind of crime fighter—the “celebrity pathologist.” He left the morgue for the crime scene in search of the evidence needed to build a murder case against Kaye’s lover. In the process, he championed the creation of a “murder bag” containing the tools and protective equipment investigators needed to safely handle evidence and decaying remains. The press hailed him as a “wizard of criminology” and “the prince of observers.”

Scotland Yard and other police forces were soon producing wizards of their own—detectives better trained to preserve crime scenes and identify potential evidence. By 1953, when six bodies were discovered in the home and garden of Christie, one of Britain’s most notorious multiple murderers, a team of investigators and scientists was ready to identify, collect, and analyze evidence. The crime scene became the “highly choreographed space of investigation” we know today.

Murder and the Making of English CSI tends to put scholarship and analysis ahead of storytelling. But the authors’ thorough study of Gross and the work of other groundbreaking investigators offers valuable insights into the art of detection, the science of forensics, and how both have changed over time.


IncendiaryDetection shifts from the crime scene to the psychiatrist’s couch in Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling (Minotaur Books). Author Michael Cannell, a former New York Times editor, recreates the desperate manhunt for a serial bomber who terrorized 1950s New York. The Unabomber of his day, he left behind few clues for the investigators on his trail.

A mystery man who styled himself “F.P.”—the initials stood for “fair play”—planted more than thirty homemade pipe bombs over a sixteen-year period, most of them as the Cold War sowed global fears of far deadlier atomic bombs. He targeted Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and other public venues such as theaters and bus depots. No one was killed, but more than a dozen people were injured. As the bombs grew more powerful and sophisticated, it seemed only a matter of time before someone was killed. Even the famed movie director Alfred Hitchcock weighed in, describing the culprit as “a man with a diabolical sense of humor.”

New York police seemed powerless to find the elusive “Mad Bomber,” as he came to be known. He taunted the authorities with letters to newspaper editors and had a grudge against the utility giant Consolidated Edison, but searches of the company’s employee records and efforts to trace his handwriting and bomb components came up empty. “Seldom in the history of New York has a case proved such a torment to police,” noted one press account.

In desperation, detectives turned to Dr. James Brussel, a psychiatrist who worked in the New York State mental health system and was considered an expert in the workings of the criminal mind. Devising a profile of an offender based on words and actions may be commonplace today, Cannell writes, but criminal profiling was “a radical notion” in the 1950s.

Brussel pored over photos, handwriting samples, and other evidence for a couple of hours and offered a description of the suspect that proved uncannily accurate, right down to the neat, double-breasted suit jacket he was likely to wear. “He seemed like a ghost,” Brussel recalled, “but he had to be made of flesh and blood.”

The profile played a key role in flushing out and capturing the Mad Bomber. A new field of forensics was born. Brussel went on to play a role in identifying the suspect in the Boston Strangler murders and, in retirement, advised the FBI as it laid the foundations for modern criminal profiling.

There’s no shortage of narrative drive in this book. Incendiary reads like a thriller. Cannell has transformed a trove of memoirs, news reports, and court records into a riveting, edge-of-your-seat account that’s rich in everyday detail and filled with fully formed characters.

One device may trouble readers who like their true crime to be true—at times, Cannell injects passages purporting to capture the bomber’s thoughts as he went about his work. These, of course, are speculation, and Cannell notes this at the outset of the book. But it’s not always clear where the story veers into fiction, and these speculations add little to an otherwise first-rate example of how to construct an absorbing historical narrative.

“Today, profiling plays a prominent role in the pursuit of all serial offenders,” Cannell notes. But a half-century ago, the notion of using psychiatric insights to solve crime was met with scepticism and derision—it seemed as far-fetched then as the need to preserve the crime scene did to policemen in the nineteenth century. These books show how detectives and scientists with a common goal—to catch the bad guys—teamed up to create some of the basic crime-solving tools of today.


Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the true story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz. His next book recreates the crimes of Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era doctor who murdered at least ten people in Canada, Chicago and London. His website is

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