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Book Review


True Stories from the Life of a Forensic Investigator

Review by Dr Zoë Morrison

As I write this, the TV show C.S.I (Crime Scene Investigation): Miami flickers in the background. It’s the closing scene, and two male detectives, one dressed in a well-fitting suit and open necked shirt, the other in tight pants and a lime green sweater, chase a perpetrator in high-speed boats through beautiful marshland, guns cocked. It’s shot from overhead and the perpetrator (complete with large blood stain across his sweaty abdomen) charges toward a row of leaping flames. When the show ends, the shorts come on for next week. We see a mess of young, tanned flesh – all legs and arms – perhaps in a club? The detective (the one in the suit) stands observing, then says: ‘At a place like this, sex and murder might be indistinguishable.’ Cut to ad break.

At first glance, Esther McKay’s Crime Scene: True Stories from the Life of a Forensic Investigator appears to fit straight into this genre. Billed as a book which ‘takes us inside the life of a forensic investigator, and reveals as never before the extraordinary demands and dangers of forensic work’, it taps into an apparently huge and seemingly insatiable market for entertainment based on all things evil, fatal and gory. What is remarkable, however, about McKay’s Crime Scene is that, as well as appropriating this current ‘crime scene’ craze, it also turns it on its head, ultimately saying something very different and, to my mind, very important about crime, fatality and their effects.

McKay’s book is an autobiographical account of her 17 years working in the NSW police force. She starts as a young recruit, working on general duties and foot patrol, and is then transferred to scientific investigation. From the beginning we are told that she is eventually forced to retire, ‘hurt in the line of duty’, when she has a breakdown and is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Much of the book, however, is devoted to her ‘real-life’ accounts of police work. This ranges from dealing with the complaints of ‘a local drug-addicted prostitute’, to attending the suicide scene of a fly blown corpse in a kombi van, to the many and varied scenes of death that scientific work involves.

There’s the teenage girl on the housing estate machetted to death by her boyfriend, because ‘if he couldn’t have her, nobody would’ – and we’re told the girl’s mother has already lost her other two daughters to early deaths. There’s the man who attempts to shoot himself in the head, but succeeds in only shattering parts of his face and skull – later on, McKay discovers to her horror a piece of the man’s moustached upper lip on the police canteen floor, trekked in on the sole of a colleague’s shoe. There’s the extraction of bodies from the Newcastle earthquake scene, there’s road-deaths, suicides, accidental deaths of children, and so on. McKay writes all these scenes in detail – there is no doubt of the extent to which they are etched upon her mind.

At one level, I suppose, such scenes could be lifted straight from the pages of a Patricia Cornwall. Many of them are pure horror, and some of them are suitably bizarre. But this is where any similarities between McKay’s Crime Scene and its multiple fictional versions end. While the fictional form usually has a narrative, and a plot progression that keeps us turning the pages (or glued to the scene), in this book, (with no ‘whodunnit’ to solve, no singular killer to capture), the continuous succession of dis-connected scenes of real fatality becomes almost monotonous. By the end of the book, I found the multiple crime scenes had virtually blurred in my mind, not unlike just one of McKay’s hellish police shifts. This, combined with the sheer horribleness of some of the descriptions, had me putting the book down at frequent intervals.

What does keep the reader turning the pages ends up being, quite awfully, the promised breakdown of the author, which is hinted at frequently throughout the text. McKay, and the people she worked with, are expected to perform this horrendous work under extremely extraneous circumstances. Even before McKay begins in the scientific division, the lack of care for workers in the force is clear. For instance, she describes the physical danger she was in, as a matter of course, when working night-shifts at an under-staffed and volatile Macquarie Fields station: ‘almost every shift I ended up struggling with a violent offender’. But it is the scientific work that stands out as the most difficult.

McKay begins with characteristic dryness: ‘To describe my initial experiences with scientific work as being thrown into the deep end would be an understatement’. Because there is apparently ‘simply no time’ to give McKay any formal training, she is expected to ‘learn on the job’, assisting another colleague on large and complicated scenes. After 8 weeks she is working on her own, and describes how she would ‘stumble through each job’, hoping she was doing okay. Working ‘on call’ involved attendance at fatality scenes at any time of the day or night. McKay describes shifts where she is working almost non-stop, with little time for meals or sleep, attending fatality after fatality, day and night, usually alone and unsupervised.

The effects of the work get worse and worse. To begin with, there is a constant sense of irritation, urgency, and the adrenaline rush. She describes saying to herself: ‘get the job done, let’s get this over with so I can get out of here and onto the next one’. But then the human tragedy that ‘completely absorbs’ her at work becomes difficult to escape from. The office is short-staffed and, when on call, with the pager bleeping and phone ringing at home, she is never able to disassociate herself from her work. She is constantly jumpy, finds it difficult to eat and sleep, perpetually re-runs the scenes in her head. Exhausted and depressed, her physical health fails. Early on, she loses her first marriage. Later on, nightmares disturb the little sleep she does get, and she is afflicted with severe headaches. She begins to think of suicide, indeed is compelled towards it, but carries on with her work, ‘trying to hide my true feelings’.

This book could be a stunning critique of the police force as an organisation. Even under more ‘normal’ working conditions, this is clearly work that will have severe effects, and there are no formal efforts to assist workers. On the contrary: any professional ‘de-briefing’ consists of drinking cask-wine with colleagues in the car-park at the end of a shift. McKay describes often close and mutually supportive working relationships with several colleagues, but it is made quite clear that according to police culture, ’emotional problems’ are mostly kept quiet. Any indication on your record that ‘you weren’t coping’ excludes you from promotion. ‘This was why stress was usually resolved by a visit to the pub’, McKay explains. Furthermore, there is more evidence of a blatant disregard for workers’ physical safety: McKay is exposed to harmful chemicals, and even HIV, without any warning or occupational precautions.

The book could also be about the sexism and the particular masculinity of the police force, and the effects of this on police culture and welfare. McKay mentions a few incidents of overt sexism, and almost all of her working mates are men. The lack of acceptance of emotions, indeed, the lack of acknowledgement of the humanity of the worker, no matter how tough or proficient, could be directly related to a ‘masculine culture’, or at least one in which commonly feminised traits such as ‘feelings’ and care are negated.

But McKay leaves it up to us to make this link. Rather than any overt criticism of the police force, or any anger or bitterness in her tone, like the good police-woman she was, McKay simply puts down, in great detail, ‘the facts’. In many ways, this turns out to be an effective approach. Far from presenting as a dissident with a chip on her shoulder, McKay presents as extremely proficient, someone who ‘put work first’, a dedicated and loyal member of the force, ‘one of the boys’, even. Initially, it is an approach that put me off-side. McKay’s accounts of dealing with rape victims, for example, which swerves straight to comments about women’s false allegations of rape, had me annoyed.

Yet that McKay’s criticism of the force remains so veiled, and that aspects of even her own language and attitudes remain so much a part of it, is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this book – in fact, goes to its very heart. The sheer length of the book, and level of detail involved, including of McKay’s own attempts to ‘cope’ (strenuous exercise, religion, moving to a station she perceived as quieter, ‘throwing herself’ into various outside activities), read to me as an attempt to actually justify, in the fullest way possible, the legitimacy of what ultimately happened to her. McKay has gone to great lengths to record every possible thing that contributed to her break-down and long term symptoms. This is a telling indictment on how she perceived her story would be heard, and not just by the police force.

Surely, the appeal and proliferation of shows like C.S.I.: Miami lies in the fact that they make an attractive and titillating fantasy out of something that is actually hideous and terrifying. Crime fiction and crime shows ironically offer the reader and the viewer safety, because while appealing to our deepest fears, they also contain them, sanitise them, and ‘solve them’ – make them better. All the evil, nastiness, violence and death that could possibly befall us is bound up and distorted within an hour-length slot. Death is made beautiful, even, and in some of these shows is ‘sexed up’, with actor/models and a funky soundtrack. In such a fantasy world, women are often made into the killer, and detectives flirt wittily over bloody corpses. Through presenting these matters as entertainment, any realities of violence and death are kept far, far away. Possibly such shows are most captivating to those who know violence, fatality and crime the very least.

In McKay’s book, the fantasy is shattered. Real crime and fatality are not entertaining – they are simply awful. And this awfulness is so harmful, that its effects are cumulative, wide-reaching, severe, and even fatal. However, it seems to me that it is mostly convenient and desirable for us not to realise this – to leave the fantasy well intact. It is convenient for the police force to pretend that its members are immune – ‘it suddenly struck me that I was considered emotionless by both the constables’, McKay writes at one point. A myth of tough, macho, ’emotionless’ police means the force does not have to consider, for instance, the human resource implications that dealing properly with these issues would entail. It is also convenient and desirable for us – the reader, the viewer – to remain in this fantasy world. Thinking properly about crime and who commits it, taking into account its real effects, and the way these effects spread – ruining the lives of people who mop up after killers, for example, seeping their way into whole families and communities where a rape has occurred – the responsibility and implications of truly realising this would be vast, and deeply radical.

Reflecting on this, I am called to question my own ‘boredom’ at aspects of this book. I myself currently work in the ‘violence field’ (for want of a better name), specifically on matters of sexual abuse, sexual assault and now family violence. I found myself not wanting to be assailed by this material. I turned off, became defensive, I did not want to be reminded of the ways my work has affected me. In short, it is embarrassing and inconvenient to admit to the ways such work ‘gets to you’. You feel weak, and you feel very alone. As McKay’s book demonstrates, these matters are systematically individualised. We focus only on the direct victim of a crime, and things like post-traumatic stress are not routinely taken into account. We still do not recognise the real, widespread and pervasive effects of crime in any meaningful or wholesale way, either within our organisations, or society at large.

Because of this, McKay’s book is brave. And if she can’t be outright critical about what happened to her, I thought I would be instead: it’s simply not good enough what happened to McKay, and what still happens to the countless others in her place. We need a far broader recognition of the true effects of crime, and a far better response to them. Of course, the ultimate irony is that McKay’s account, in the end, is just another crime book. What I wonder, sometimes, is what it would take for people to raise their eyes from their TV screens, and turn their attention to these ‘true’ crime scene situations.

Dr Zoë Morrison holds research posts at Monash University and Melbourne University. She is the author of ‘The Morrison Report’ an independent investigation into the reporting of sexual abuse and response to sexual assault within the Anglican Church. She is currently working on legislative reform and family violence at the Victorian Law Reform Commission.

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