SUSPECT IDENTITIES: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

Simon A. Cole, Author SUSPECT IDENTITIES: A History of Fingerprinting and Crimina $35 (369p) ISBN 978-0-674-00455-9

Cole's comprehensive first book investigates the tangled intersections of scientific identification and law enforcement, entering similar territory as Colin Beavan's Fingerprints (see review above), but with more rigorous detail and attention to historical ambiguities. Cole, with a Ph.D. in science and technology studies, describes how the anonymity of the growing cities introduced "identification as a problem without a solution" (prefigured by the 16th-century Martin Guerre case in which the suspect's identity remained in question after the conflicting testimonies of 150 of his townsmen), even as the need was developing to identify and isolate career criminals. Bertillonage, the foremost anthropometry (bodily measurement) system, was believed to be a breakthrough and persisted into the 1930s. Cole details decades of conflict and competition between Bertillon's advocates and those of the radical and haphazardly developing science of fingerprinting (which was initially envisioned for civil verification, e.g., for payrolls). Although successful prosecutions heralded the embrace of fingerprinting by the 1920s, controversy involving partial or single prints kept validity at bay. Furthermore, the lack of a single, central fingerprint database "made fingerprinting a somewhat empty promise," as did the incompatibility of competing fingerprinting systems. Political overtones surface as Cole tracks America's war on crime, beginning when J. Edgar Hoover unsuccessfully sought universal fingerprinting. Late chapters like "Fraud, Fabrication, and False Positives" address recent developments including the controversial certification process for fingerprint examiners, defense attorney attacks on examiner credibility or corruption, and what Cole portrays as the premature reliance on DNA typing and other new forms of biometric identification. Drier but more in-depth and exacting than Beavan's, this well-wrought history will be admired by scholars and serious lay readers. Photos and illus. (May 16)

Forecast: For a smaller, more dedicated audience than Fingerprints, but the author has been garnering attention as an expert in the field: he's recently been interviewed by the Economist, Lingua Franca, the AP and the New York Times.

Reviewed on: 04/09/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Ebook - 383 pages - 978-0-674-02968-2
Paperback - 369 pages - 978-0-674-01002-4
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