Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Blood Secrets, by Rod Englert

Blood Secrets: A Forensic Expert Reveals How Blood Spatter Tells the Crime Scene's Story, by Rod Englert with Kathy Passero. Thomas Dunne Books / Macmillan. $25.99.

Sometimes we get a bunch of publisher galleys and it's hard to work up any interest in any of them. Sometimes one just calls out to me. This book falls into the latter category. I'm a guy who's had James's Principles of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis on my bookshelves for years, so I'm clearly dead center in this book's target demographic. I blew through it in two days of page-turning.

Most of the first half of the book is given over to Englert's autobiography, in an attempt to illustrate how exactly one comes to this line of work. Aside from him being a farm boy and me being from Brooklyn, we have a little bit in common. Like me, he applied to a "big city" police department with high aspirations (he the LAPD, me the NYPD), and like me he was ultimately rejected. Unlike me he continued on applying to podunk rural departments away from the big city to try to make his career in a small pond first. He wound up making bloodstains his life's work and basically made his small, provincial department famous because of his expertise.

There's no special drama or narrative drive here, just a quietly interesting window on the kinds of people who used to make up law enforcement, particularly on the (semi-rural) west coast. Englert's life reads like the back story of a Joseph Wambaugh character from his Choirboys era, circa 1975. But it isn't until page 113, when the book's almost halfway over, that the writers get around to saying "here are some ... bloodstain fundamentals, along with the basics on bullet trajectories and wound patterns." Wait, what? Chapter one! Chapter one! This is what we came for!

Well, sort of. It turns out the real meat of the book is not in dry scientific tables and formulas, but in in the many, many case studies Englert provides from his files, with names like "The Pizza Boy's Missing Body" and "Sledgehammers and Finger-Pointing". He emphasizes how textbook knowledge can only take you so far, and how a rounded education on the subject is only possible with direct, first-hand experience with real life crime scenes. In case after case, he describes crime scenes he found that deviated sharply from textbook scenarios, and flummoxed him and other detectives at first, but which were solved as any scientific problems are solved, with the application of method and reason. And maybe his more interesting anecdotes involve disproving a theory or sussing out the significance of something that turns out to not be that significant after all. It's not like television where everything ends with "Case closed!"--sometimes you are led down a blind alley and things don't pan out. Scientific method, look it up. Like when Englert arrives on the scene to find bizarre and inexplicable semi-circular blood marks on the wall near a bloody corpse. Is it a clue from the killer? No, turns out that's just the kind of mark left when the victim's dog licks most of the blood evidence off the wall before the police arrive.

I could have done without the chapter on celebrity cases. These things must, by definition, already be overfamiliar to virtually all readers via the evening news, and do we really need another re-heating of the OJ Simpson case from yet another angle? I appreciate that Englert wants to play up what a renowned authority he is by going over all the famous cases he's been called in to consult on, but it doesn't exactly make gripping reading. Thankfully that somewhat stale chapter is pretty short.

Other than that? It's a pretty great read if, like me, you have a yen for true crime in your veins.

No comments: