By Jonathan Li and Eric Wang
Debris, charred to pitch blackness, lies scattered all over what once used to be a building. Now, only a gruesome mound of wood, concrete, stone, and corpses stand in its place. Whether such a tragedy was done with malicious intent or occurred purely by accident seems impossible to tell, since any potential clues remain hidden under the ruins. Yet, as shown in the “Fire and Explosives” chapter from David Owen’s Hidden Evidence, this site is actually a goldmine of evidence in the hands of a forensic investigator. Numerous chemicals, chromatography experiments, and technologies—miracles of modern science—can all be put towards finding clues as to how the crime occurred and even towards finding the perpetrators through DNA evidence. Still, when placed in the context of true crime narratives, forensic science seems oddly out of place. Writer and professor Jean Murley explains the true crime genre as, “a way of making sense of the senseless, but it has also become a worldview, an outlook, and a perspective on contemporary American life, one that is suspicious and cynical [...], and preoccupied with safety, order and justice” (2). This trait of true crime, one that is so focused on psychology, emotions, and justice, is hardly fitting with the cold, data-driven facets of science. Yet, even despite the differences between forensic science and true crime narrative, we see a remediation between these two styles in David Owen’s Hidden Evidence, which produces a new type of crime narrative that has science play a more prominent role in solving mysteries.
As fire and explosive-related crimes do an incredible job in distorting or destroying physical evidence, the visual aftermath of these forces predominates observation and investigation. Nevertheless, there are underlying chemical and physical properties at work. The construction of models and other representations thus becomes integral in making scientific research in characterizing these properties applicable to modes of forensic inquiry. In their book on visualization, scholars Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright describe the escalating importance of scientific visualization as “encompass[ing] the acoustic and tactile world with the increased availability of digital rendering and display mechanisms” (349). As humans tend to rely on sight more than other senses, the growth of modern visualization technology becomes crucial in understanding and applying science to forensic investigation. The “Fire and Explosives” chapter by Owen reflects that desire to see the unseen through his abundant ‘techno-babble’ and descriptions of precise modern scientific experiments, coupled with their specific forensic utility regarding fire and explosions.