I thought I’d try something different this month. As a court reporter who has sat through several murder trials, and an author who occasionally writes a crime scene investigation, share a little of the knowledge I’ve gleaned from both my job, personal experience and a host of great authors who have written novels related to this subject.
You’ve decided to write a crime novel, wherein your protagonist is probably a detective with an attitude. The great thing is that in fiction writing you have leaway to let your character break the rules. However, if you want those who actually work in the field to take you seriously there are some rules you shouldn’t break without giving an explanation.
First: You need to decide what type of crime has occurred. In most crime novels, of course, there is a dead body at the heart of the matter. So, let’s assume you have a dead body. And let’s assume it’s inside an abandoned house or warehouse. Someone calls in a bad odor coming from the house or warehouse.
Second: Where is the crime? Are you in the middle of a major city, or a small countryside, with only one or two local police, and possibly a Sheriff.
Third: You have to establish jurisdiction. Who gets the first call? Almost every American city has 911, which is, probably the first call someone would make. However, in small towns a person may know the local Sheriff or Police Chief and actually call them. Normally a patrol car will be dispatched to check it out.
Fourth: Deciding who is at your crime scene. Once again, this is determined by “where your crime occurred”. EMS? Coroner? Medical Examiner? Homicide Detectives?
Be sure to research your area. Some small areas may not have either a medical examiner or coroner and one may have to be called in from another area. In some states the medical examiners and coroners work together. In large areas there may be multiple medical examiners and/or coroners. Research your state and the city of your crime.
Fifth: Do you need a search warrant? In the past search warrants were not necessary in cases of suspected murder or even suicide. However, Supreme Court rulings have changed that, and a search warrant is normally necessary before you can legally search the premises. Of course, if the person in charge of the property, owner or renter, is available then they may give you permission to search. You need to know who has control of the premises.
Sixth: Don’t touch anything. Of course, if your detective is a rebel, he or she is probably going to break this rule right up front. But in most cases a good detective knows not to touch anything until the scene has been totally documented. That includes documenting anyone at the scene. Isolate witnesses. Wait for the search warrant if necessary and delegate, delegate, delegate. The time of day needs to be documented. Day of week. Weather conditions. Photos taken. Witnesses interviewed. Only when everything possible has been documented does the detective start to look for and collect evidence.
Seven: Don’t be too quick to diagnose the cause of death. Leave that up to the ME or coroner. Sure, there may be a bullet hole between the eyes, but when the coroner’s report comes out you could be surprised to find that the actual cause of death was a broken neck. The shot to the forehead was an angry overkill, or something to throw the detective off because it would take a really strong person to physically break someone’s neck.
In summary, choose your crime then choose your state and city. Once you have that down start your research into who, why, how and when so you know, 1) who arrives first on a scene; 2) why they have to wait; 3) how they proceed and 4) when does the remainder of the crime scene investigators arrive.
A great source of information is, of course, the local homicide detectives, ME’s, Coroners and Sheriffs and Police Officers. If you approach them properly with your request at a time they aren’t swamped with an overload of cases, most of them are more than happy to discuss your crime and the proper sequence of investigation with you. Remember, though, if they are helpful to give them all at least a research line in your book.
Join me tomorrow for Part 2.