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trace evidence

1 january 2024

Forensic evidence has been integral to mystery stories since Sherlock Holmes identified his first tobacco ashes. But it really took off as a mainstay of crime fiction in the 1990s with Patricia Cornwell's novels, and then in the 21st century, with CSI and its many successors.

Elizabeth Becka, an experienced forensic analyst, was well-placed to write such fictions. Though her first novel, Trace Evidence, includes a lot of crime-scene and lab detail, Becka makes sure to weave a vivid plot around all the procedure. A serial killer has been slipping girls into cement overshoes and popping them – alive – to drown slowly in the wintry waters of Cleveland. He really starts to attract attention when he kills the mayor's daughter. And the mayor's ex-girlfriend turns out to be our heroine, Evelyn James, the medical examiner's premier crime-scene technician.

The first rule of crime-scene investigation is that forensic scientists aren't cops, and don't go out with badge and gun to hunt down suspects: whatever CSI portrays. Evelyn James has no experience doing the badge-and-gun stuff when Trace Evidence begins. But being the mayor's eyes and ears into the investigation, and taking a special interest in David Milaski, the lonely-hearts cop with a backstory that she becomes involved in, Evelyn is along for the ride, plays detective in her spare time, and has a daughter who is just the right age to fall victim to the killer. How can she not get into some thrilling situations?

Trace Evidence thus forfeits some basic believability early on. For various expository reasons, the novel expects us to believe that the mayor of Cleveland has been best friends with a prominent local gangster, and the lover of a prominent local forensic analyst, but hasn't spoken to either of them in almost 20 years. This awkward hiatus is not even vital to the plot; it seems thrown in just to heighten some already fever-pitchy drama. Soon enough after the mayor does recontact them, roles get blurred, interests get conflicted, suspects get laid like red herrings across the reader's path … and for all that, Becka develops a pretty good mystery story and a solid entertainment, with sharp and appealing characters.

Becka, Elizabeth. Trace Evidence. New York: Hyperion, 2005. PS 3602 .E283T73