Real Detectives and Fictional Criminals

  • John Simons


This essay is an account of a small subgroup of texts in the hugely varied crime-book market: biographies and memoirs of pathologists.1 Though this would seem to be unpromising material for best-seller status in the competitive field of popular publishing, such books have, in fact, achieved considerable currency. Take the example of Professor Keith Simpson’s Forty Years of Murder: this text was published in 1978, paperbacked in 1980 and went through no less than ten reprintings up to 1986. This history shows very clearly the appeal that such material can have to a broad reading public, as does the fact that the BBC have recently felt it worthwhile to repeat their series Indelible Evidence in which actors present dramatised reconstructions of crimes that were solved partly through the production of forensic evidence. I do not, however, intend to carry out a statistical survey of the currency of such books or to produce a sociological study of patterns of consumption and audience composition. Rather I intend to examine the appeal of these texts by showing how they place themselves squarely in the space, both economic and critical, usually occupied by crime fiction and how they consistently mimic the forms and ambience of purely fictional work. Indeed, there are direct links: Professor Simpson has published a number of crime stories under the pseudonym ‘Guy Bailey’, a name that, with its invocation of the court with which he is so familiar, drags his fictional work into the realm of ‘fact’. My contention is that the pathologist’s ‘history’ (a word which perhaps obscures the fact — fiction polarity) achieves its appeal precisely because it consistently conceals its own claims to the authoritative ground of documentary and thus can be read as offering the same pleasures as the most far-fetched romance of robbery and murder.


Forensic Evidence Fictional Work Fictional Detective Crime Story Crime Fiction 
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  1. 1.
    The texts on which this chapter is based are as follows: K. Simpson, Forty Years of Murder (London: Harrap, 1986); T. Tullett, Clues to Murder (London: Grafton, 1987); R. Jackson, Francis Camps (London: Granada, 1983); S. Smith, Mostly Murder (London: Granada, 1986); D. Browne and E. V. Tullett, Sir Bernard Spilsbury (London: Harrap, 1951). Subsequent references to these books are given in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Quoted in M. Shepherd, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr Freud (London: Tavistock, 1985) p. 20. Shepherd points out that the Holmesian method is really only logical in the context of the Holmesian myth and that his solutions are by no means so evident as is often claimed, relying more on illogic and intuition than any more rational skills. I have already mentioned Tullett’s treatment of Cameron’s part in the Douglas case as an example of the tendency for pathologists to be presented as decisive in the solution of crimes, but for a further illustration of the way in which forensic evidence is presented as far more important than it actually appears to have been, readers should consult Simpson’s account of ‘the wigwam murder’ (Forty Years of Murder, pp. 71–82) where again forensic evidence, which was plainly viewed with grave suspicion by the judge, is cited in great detail when, again, it has really been a corroborative aspect instrumental in pressurising the accused into making an inconsistent statement and not a factor that clinched an otherwise uncertain conviction.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    S. Pfohl and A. Gordon, ‘Criminological Displacements: a Sociological Deconstruction’, in A. and M. Kroker, Body Invaders (London: Macmillan, 1988) p. 236.Google Scholar

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© John Simons 1990

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  • John Simons

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