cover image FINGERPRINTS: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science

FINGERPRINTS: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science

Colin Beavan, FINGERPRINTS: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder. , $22.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-7868-6607-6

Beavan's lively debut explores developments in criminal forensics that culminated in the first prosecution based on fingerprint evidence, in London in 1905. He opens his narrative with the wanton double murder of the elderly Farrows and the crude initial investigation. Beavan, a writer for Esquire and other magazines, examines at length the slow scientific inroads into 19th-century law enforcement. Following the sharp decline in hanging offenses, European societies were swept by hysteria regarding multi-aliased career criminals. Officials reluctantly explored ways of confirming identities of repeat offenders, notably Alphonse Bertillon's anthropometric system, which posited that "criminal" body types could be identified by minute bodily measurements. Several British bureaucrats had experimented with inked fingerprints for identification, but Henry Faulds, an impoverished Scottish medical missionary in Japan, definitively claimed that fingerprints' particular qualities were ideal for criminal prosecution. Faulds's early publications spawned fingerprint science; unfortunately, his thunder was stolen by the ambitious, better-positioned Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin), whom Beavan portrays as an effete plagiarist. Police in South America and India ventured into this terra incognita, but Scotland Yard fiercely resisted. Only tragic anthropometric and eyewitness misidentifications led grudging officials to use the Farrows trial as a test case. The embittered Faulds served as a defense witness, contending that single-digit identification, the basis for this ultimately successful prosecution, was unreliable. This entertaining and balanced work centers less on academic precepts than does Simon Cole's Suspect Identities (see review below). Beavan's effortless prose, firm grasp of his subject and vividly drawn characters will delight history buffs and armchair criminologists. Photos and illus. (May)

Forecast: This is a charmer that, with good reviews and effective promotion, could catch on outside the true-crime crowd. There will also be online promotion at the Web site