Tag Archives: crime

Review: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

nutshellI first saw Corinne May Botz’s book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York.  It is a collection of art photos taken of Frances Glessner Lee’s dollhouse recreations of murder scenes.

The dioramas were not merely macabre toys put together by a fan of true crime. Lee painstakingly created  the scenarios in the 1940s and 50s for a very serious purpose: training investigating police on the correct scientific methods of approaching crime scenes, observing all details which may bear on the case.

At the time, medical law was still very much a work in progress – murders often passed undetected or badly investigated. Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress, founded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine and built these gruesome displays of domestic murder, mishap and accidental death to train police in observation. The models are still in use today by the Baltimore Police.

IMG_9741An astonishing level of detail went into their creation. Lee sometimes wore clothes for a year past their effective use-by date so they’d have the correct wear for the tiny figures in their boxes. She ordered parts, she disassembled and reworked and reconstructed them. She had pieces made from scratch. There are tiny calendars and books (including The Sign of the Four), miniature tools and household implements, medically accurate colouring (bright red skin for victims of carbon monoxide poisoning) and domestic details recreated to scale. Many of the scenarios were based on real cases, altered and expanded slightly to fit their purpose as training materials.

IMG_9747The Studies taught generations of investigative officers how to keep their eyes open, to look for corroborating evidence and to seek out contradictory clues.

The Nutshell Studies – so named for the old saying that the role of forensics is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell” – have multiple aspects to them.

IMG_9749There is the story of an intelligent, strong-willed woman who was denied a university education because that was not appropriate for women (according to her father) but forged a valuable role for herself anyway. There is the story of policing and detective work. There is a wealthy woman’s philanthropic role in promoting the ways in which the law and medicine interacted (in early years, coroners didn’t have to have medical expertise at all – some were elected to the position and were pretty much useless for the purpose of autopsies and crime solving). There is one photographer’s growing obsession with the dollhouses not only as social and investigative artefacts, but as artistic ones too.

Botz’s book is an artistic interpretation of the training tableaus, beginning with observations on Lee’s life and how it influenced her work in an artistic and social rather than strictly crime-solving sense. A biography of Lee criss-crosses the social, feminist, investigative and artisan elements of the work before the rest of the book highlights some of the studies.

IMG_9745The point of this book is not a whodunnit for the reader to solve – most of the scenarios remain unexplained because they’re still in use – but the biography and the photographs together provide an insight for the crime writer, as well as the reader who is fascinated by the strange and macabre and by the history of detective work.

They are also strangely, brutally beautiful in the way they capture the hard lives and everyday tragedy of death, and the remarkable detail that went into making them.

I can’t help thinking that Sherlock Holmes would approve of them.

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Review: Cyanide and Poppies by Carolyn Morwood (AWW Challenge 2013 #6)

cyanide-and-poppies-an-eleanor-jones-mysteryI read Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady last year (and Gary the vampire and his librarian friend Lissa reviewed it), being a sucker for books set in my hometown, especially historical crime novels. That book was set in 1919, just after the Great War and during the devastating period of the Spanish flu epidemic. This story, set five years later, occurs on the eve of the police strike of 1923, which saw rioting in the Melbourne’s main streets.

The maxim that you should start in the midst of the action is taken to heart in Cyanide and Poppies, with the heroine, former nurse Eleanor Jones, kneeling by the body of a dead man in the offices of The Argus newspaper, where she is now a journalist, while waiting for the police to arrive. It’s perhaps a mite too abrupt as a beginning, but it certainly throws the reader into the midst of the business, both with Edward Bain’s murder and the difficulties of a police investigation while a strike is in place.

It also catches us up with Eleanor very quickly, including her change of profession and the ways in which her experiences in the war still haunt her. Her shell-shocked brother Andrew is still struggling with the return to life and Eleanor herself is still determined to deny and kill off her feelings for her unfortunately married friend Nicholas.

Much of the plot unfolds in a strangely muted fashion, reflecting Eleanor’s (and Andrew’s) own disconnectedness from things. The rest of the world intrudes on them, of course – sometimes in immediate and violent ways – but there is a sense of them both viewing the event around them at arm’s length.

But the mystery gathers momentum, including Andrew’s relationship with the vivacious but scandalous medium, Nadine Carrides, and Eleanor’s concerns and doubts about Carrides as well as her colleagues at The Argus. As it does so, there is a sense that the siblings’ lives are also gaining in momentum and purpose, and light begins to break on both the crime and their own relationships and engagement with their post-war world.

The book is elegantly written, with well-crafted characters and a wonderful capacity to evoke the Melbourne of the era. It’s always a pleasure to recognise parts of my town in a book, and even moreso to get a feel for those places in other times and atmospheres.

Cyanide and Poppies has a slow build to a satisfying finale that cracks open light and air on lives as well as mysteries, and that’s a pretty fine thing.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.