with Janette Dalgliesh
Top Crime Myths
I’m a placid soul, and I know crime on TV is supposed to be escapism. But that doesn’t stop me wanting to throw a brick at the screen when stories get the simple stuff wrong. Dear writer, is it too much to ask? Here are my top five crime myth peeves:
24 hour wait
Scene: Wife turns up dead after not going home the night before. Detective scowls: “Did you report her missing?” Distraught husband sobs: “I called but missing persons said I had to wait.”
The 24-hour waiting period isn’t universal, even in the USA. In many cases, circumstances would be assessed before dismissing a concerned relative. And in Australia, there is no waiting period for reporting a missing person. If you don’t know where someone is and you have concerns about their safety, you report them straight away. Scriptwriters who reinforce this myth need their wrists slapped.
Sex before science
I love the forensics sub-genre, to the point where I can forgive its many myths. But this one really gets my goat. UK drama Silent Witness at least pays lip service to the notion of protecting the integrity of a crime scene, with the gorgeous Emilia Fox happily donning baggy disposable coveralls and bootees to do her job. But according to CSI – the biggest franchise in the pack – as long as scientists have their trusty gloves, they can shed hair, skin and clothing fibres to their heart’s content. Grrr.
Scene: the forensic lab (yes, again – promise I’ll move on after this). Our sexy scientist prepares her samples in a montage of serious-forehead and shiny equipment. And look! Within minutes of putting the sample into the machine with the to-die-for graphic design – a match!
The science of DNA fingerprinting has been developing and improving for many years, since its first court appearance in a UK immigration case in 1985. While it’s true that the tests are much faster than they used to be, most times the lab work and subsequent analysis and reporting requires more than an ad-break to complete. And it’s rare that DNA evidence comes in the neat package most forensics shows would have us believe. And this could be having an effect on real court cases.
In 2004 a Peoria, Illinois jury let off an alleged rapist because the DNA evidence presented by the prosecution – his saliva on her breast – didn’t match their expectations of forensics.
Witnesses are dumb
Scene: detective gets a phone call from a witness, who whispers “I can’t tell you over the phone… meet me tonight…”. And you know they’ve signed their death warrant.
Really? Witnesses the world over are all calling the cops, and conveniently timing it so they’ll be killed before they can pass on their all-important information? This isn’t a myth about the legal system or the process of investigation, but it’s a myth about what’s likely. Midsomer Murders is a particular offender with this annoying narrative device, though it doesn’t stop me watching (albeit with iPhone game or laptop handily in reach).
Wire me up
Scene: a sympathetic suspect agrees to a lie detector test, and the results prove she didn’t do it. Woohoo!
We love the idea that the bad guys can be caught out, or the innocent exonerated, by a machine. But in the real world, lie detector tests only work on some of the people, some of the time. In the USA, each state has different approaches to the admissibility of these tests, while in Europe, they’re generally not accepted by the courts. Here in Australia, only NSW has made a specific ruling on the matter, also finding the tests not admissible.
Happily, lie detectors in crime fiction are increasingly depicted as having a purely investigatory role, which is closer to the real world. I’ve even seen scripts that discuss the unreliability of the tests.
Perhaps this is a sign that given enough time, writers of crime do eventually let go of their favourite myths. Perhaps all I need to do is wait.
What’s your favourite peeve? Feel free to share!