We are fascinated with death, as evidenced by the huge number of bestselling books, TV shows and films that center around it. But as writers, it's not necessarily something we know too much about. If you're interested in writing about death or crime, you'll learn a lot from my interview today.
Warning: this topic is a sensitive one and we do discuss some quite gruesome aspects of crime scenes.
Garry Rodgers has seen a lot of death. In three decades of experience as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and coroner, Garry has investigated death, studied death and written about death. He’s witnessed death and, tragically as a police officer, he’s had to cause death and came very close to experiencing his own.
- How Gary's career has developed. During his years as a Mountie, he specialized as a homicide detective and became part of the emergency response team so he is an expert in ballistics and firearms. After leaving the police force, he became an investigative field coroner, so he is viewed as an expert in death.
- On why we are so fascinated with death. It's not boring! Much of our lives are mundane, so we want to know what's behind the “black door”. The fear of death is one of humanity's greatest and it's something we must all face one day. Fear produces a buzz and there's a thrill of facing death vicariously through the books we read and the TV programs/movies we consume.
What writers get wrong when writing about death
- The mechanism of death. We die because our central nervous system gets unplugged and that can happen in a number of ways. Mental and physical death are two different things. Garry also has a spiritual belief that the spark of humanity in us lives on after death, based on what he has experienced. People are quite hard to kill so the quick ways we kill in novels can be quite unrealistic. Shutting down the CNS requires force. Firearms and knives are the most common ways, but it is messy and not something that happens quickly.
- On crime scenes. Writers often forget to use all five senses. Crime scenes are not pleasant and by evoking the senses, you can make this experience more real. Terminology is often used badly as well. Check what you write with experts. Also, get your basics right e.g. revolver vs pistol. A lot of acronyms are used at the crime scenes so include those.
- On the emotional impact of the crime scene when you're a professional vs a ‘rookie'. The coroner focuses on the cause of death, not on the fact that it happened. You have to try to establish who, what, when, where and by what means. First responders will have arrived before the investigators so the chaos of the scene will have dissipated somewhat. First responders can walk into danger if the factors that caused the death are still there.
- In death, the body will change very quickly. [I mention the Body Farm, Death's Acre by Bill Bass.] The biggest factor is temperature. The warmer the temperature, the larger the body, the faster the decomposition. The body temp will eventually reach equilibrium with the scene temp. Most indicative are mortis (change) in body; pallor (color) algor (temperature), rigor (stiffening), livor (pattern of blood settling) and decomp (breaking down of tissue). It's nature's recycling.
- Time of death is critical to get right so the investigation can check the alibis of suspects, but it's not just about the body. Bodies can be found days or weeks after the event, so the stage of decomposition should be compared to the scene itself. But other factors are also important e.g. cellphone records are crucial because so many people carry them. The history will show the last call made but also when calls are received and go unanswered. Also check when the person was last seen. If in the home, when is the post dated. It's the overall pattern. It's not just the pathologist pronouncing time of death. It is also approximate unless there is an eye witness.
- The best way to get away with murder is to completely get rid of the body. The ocean is a good place and Garry mentions some mob hits where the bodies have been disposed of in nasty ways. But it is actually very hard to do. Plus most writers need a body to write the book around.
- On dental records. It always seems coincidental that people get ID'ed so fast through dental records. Most dentists do have records but they are not kept centrally. You need to have an idea who the person is in order to narrow down where their records might be. When a person is reported missing, one of the things the police will do is obtain their dental records in case they are needed for identification later.
- Using DNA. The science of genetic fingerprinting, which is now very sophisticated. In fact, so sophisticated it is hyper-sensitive and can be contaminated at the scene or during investigation. The maternal DNA can be used to identify a body against a list of potential suspects. There wouldn't be a crime scene investigation today without DNA so it is critical to include.
- How the body is identified. If the DNA or fingerprints don't match anything, it can depend on the circumstances, but there are always unidentified bodies. The good old-fashioned detective work needs to be done in this case, for example, receipts found on the body or aspects found at the scene. Investigation is a multidisciplinary approach, pulling people from different teams.
- Gender and homicide. Are there equal rights in the death business? Males are more violent than females. There has to be a strong motive for a woman to commit murder. Domestic violence is a common one. Knives are often used as they are handy at the moment of conflict. Planned and premeditated murders are rare, but women are more intelligent and might contract out the killing. So murder by women is likely to be violent and sudden or crafty and difficult to detect.
- On the social networking of the underworld. Most people who commit these murders come from the ‘other' side of life. There are things we just don't see when we live ‘normal' lives.
- Garry gives us a true story of crime that illustrates the things authors get wrong and also how the crime scene investigation works. It's fascinating.
Garry also has a novel coming out soon, No Witnesses To Nothing, which will use his own near-death experience as well as ancient Canadian mythology.