Posts Tagged ‘forensic science’

Edge of Black by J T Ellison

November 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Edge of Black by J T Ellison (Harlequin, 2012) is the second book featuring Dr Samantha Owens, another of these feisty forensic pathologists who’s quite happy to literally track down killers with the help of her current man, Xander Whitfield. Although this introduction sounds fairly disparaging — after all, we do seem to be developing quite a run of books with academically-inclined women who straddle the police procedural and thriller divide — this is actually rather good. Oh oh! I pause as I type this because, an uncountable number of moons ago, my long-suffering English teacher introduced me to the notion a critic could damn a book by offering only faint praise. It’s the grudging implication. In these days when marketing hype surrounds us, the moral for critics seems to have become either fulsome praise or complete silence. This reflects the new norm that, when asked for an opinion, we choose words representing the highest level of praise we believe justified. Should we only write half-hearted words, it implies there’s nothing better to say. Well, on the scale which starts with “unreadable rubbish” and ends with “should win an award”, this is a genuinely interesting puzzle to unravel, with a satisfying amount of charging around the landscape defending self and saving others, and not too much romance to slow things down for us old male readers who prefer thrillers to be as platonic as possible. In my vernacular that means a pretty damn fine book, but not one of the best!

J T Ellison


So where to start with this review? Having lost her husband and children in the first book, our heroine is settling in with a new man and starting a short-term teaching assignment when she becomes involved in the investigation of an act of terrorism. A toxin is released into the Washington Metro. Several hundred are hospitalised and three die. This immediately sets off alarm bells. Homeland Security has been caught on the hop with no advance chatter or other signs of an impending attack. Yet, by one of these coincidences much loved by thriller writers, our heroine’s new man was tipped off there was an attack coming. Oh dear! I appreciate this contrivance is necessary to set up the ending but, if you start off the journey on the wrong foot, it can take much of the enjoyment away. One of the reasons for reading puzzle books is for the reader to be a tabula rasa, i.e. to have the same level of ignorance as the investigator. We can then look over his or her shoulder as the evidence comes in and watch to see how the little grey cells process the data to arrive at the Eureka moment at the end. It’s hardly fair when the live-in lover turns out to have a backdoor route to solving a federal case. Although I concede it does force our pathologist into considering her legal and ethical position, this is scant compensation. What makes it worse is that, for this scenario to work out right, the key detective must also join in the conspiracy when he has every reason not to.


Fortunately, these crass contrivances do not detract from the essentially ingenious nature of the puzzle itself. If we ignore Xander’s role, Dr Sam and her detective buddy Darren Fletcher prove a good team. Working from different ends of the case, they both arrive at a good understanding of what’s actually going on, albeit seeing different aspects which fit together to make the final picture. It makes a pleasant change to have the detective credits shared so evenly. Normally, when we have one of these high-powered women as the lead character, none of the men around her get to share much of the limelight. But Fletcher is allowed to hold his head up and deliver some good results (although this is often building on Dr Sam’s work). If I could have stopped here, I would have been heralding this as one of the best books of the year. The backstory is beautifully worked out and the way some of the details of the immediate plot are resolved is outstanding. But J T Ellison is determined to write a thriller and so grafts on this pathetic subplot involving Xander. Is the writing of a high standard throughout? Yes, the prose style is excellent! As written, does the plot show good construction and maintain the pace until the end? Yes, at a technical level, everything about this book is excellent! It even obeys the unity of time constraint which is always pleasing. This makes the final result a complete tragedy. I have no problem with my heroine staggering around in remote forests being menaced by deranged killers. This is in the nature of thrillers and, if done well, I’m the first to jump up cheering and applauding. But this heroine only ends up in the expected danger because of woeful coincidences and contrivances.


So there you have it. By my standards, Edge of Black is a great police procedural or pathology-led investigation, but a thriller whose inner workings depend on unjustified coincidences. On the other hand, you may feel Dr Sam and Xander should be destined to have an adventure and don’t care about the fortuitous way in which she can meet his parents and save his life in the same package. If so, pick this up. This is just your kind of romantically-tinged book.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Forensic Heroes or Fa cheng sin fung

Culturally, it’s fascinating to see how two different countries approach the same themes. The US has long been the market leader with the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation stable of series. This is part of an amusing strategy to lionise geek scientists as crime busters. Obviously, chronically underfunded policing agencies want more done to mythologise the power of science as a means of identifying criminals. This will maximise the potential deterrent effect in the real world. Potential criminals will now think twice if they believe Gill Grissom will come out of retirement and catch them. Of course the sad reality is that there’s little for the criminals to fear. Most laboratories are slow and inefficient. Unlike their fictional counterparts who must solve their crimes in the time represented by one days’s shift, the real technicians are not allowed to walk the streets with guns and break down doors in pursuit of suspects. If they are to have any credibility, they must be independent of the police, analysing the evidence submitted to them and offering dispassionate findings for the prosecutors to evaluate over a period of weeks and months. Try telling that to Horatio Caine as he poses, hand on his gun and staring off thoughtfully into the distance as he tries to remember his next pithy line.

Forensic Heroes II Poster

Well, the original CSI has rivals, the Hong Kong, TVB version being called Forensic Heroes or Fa cheng sin fung — even in translation, this continues the trend of the Condor Heroes and other series, using the notion of heroism to show deeds above and beyond the call of duty in shaping societies. Under the leadership of Gao-Sir (Timothy), played with admirable restraint by Bobby Au-Yeung, there’s a joint team of forensic scientists and detectives who investigate serious crimes. The structure of the serial is not the same as its US counterpart. The first set of episodes ran for 25 weeks followed by a second set running for 30 weeks. In a sense this gives away its secret. Taking both together, it’s really a soap where the primary characters all work in law enforcement.

So the back-to-back serial episodes develop long narrative arcs. For example, Gao-Sir was married but lost his wife in an accidental poisoning. During the first set of episodes, he investigates her death and slowly emerges from mourning. There’s interest in Siu-Yau, played by Yoyo Mung, who’s in charge of the main team of police detectives. He marries her in the final episode of the second serial. Similarly, we get to know the pathologist Chak-Sam, played by Frankie Lam, as his secret life as a mystery writer is revealed and he comes out of his shell to get engaged to Ding Ding, one of the forensic analysts played by Linda Chung. Unfortunately, she’s killed in an explosion quite early in the second serial, just before they are due to get married, and we then are tantalised with the prospect of a love triangle involving the new head of the police unit, Madam Ma played by Charmaine Sheh, and Chak-Sam’s best friend Yat-Sing, played by Kevin Cheng.

Yoyo Mung and Bobby Au-Yeung waiting for the script writers to give them permission

At all times, everything is beautifully in context with us allowed to meet the families of all the major characters and watch how home and work interact. Indeed, many of the cases arise out of family relationships or connections with friends. In the second set of episodes, Madam Ma starts off estranged from a part of her family but, because her step-brother is kidnapped, she’s able to break down the prejudices, rescue him, and produce a happily united family for the final episode where she’s finally about to confirm her engagement to Yat-Sing.

By contrast, I suppose you have to admire the professionalism of the original CSI which continues to turn out stories so beautifully tailored to fit into the minutes allocated for each episode. There are rarely redundant moments with everything driving the viewer from one end of the experience to the other in discreet little packages. Although we occasionally bump into some elements of an existence outside the lab, such moments are peripheral and only present because they briefly illuminate some feature of one of our “heroes”. Yet in Forensic Heroes, there’s an even balance between home and work. We follow parents as they conspire to persuade a respective son and daughter to date, we see how casual remarks wound or spark interest. In the kitchen, some learn new recipes or try dishes to broaden their experience or as an application of TCM. They go into shops, cafés and restaurants where all become more three-dimensional as characters. Yes, the last episode has Gao-Sir wallowing in sentimentality as the entire tribe gathers to celebrate successfully negotiating 55 episodes with only a few of them being blown up or shot — all in the name of excitement as the characters in whom we have invested so many of our emotions are threatened with death by scriptwriter. Remember, even Gao-Sir had to survive a kidnapping and being hidden away without food and water in a shipping container before he could finally propose to Sui-Yao. The path of true love never runs smooth in these stories.

Charmaine Sheh waiting for word from her agent on the next part

As a final point of contrast, CSI focuses on the technology with much of the work featuring cunning machines and sophisticated chemistry. While Forensic Heroes is rather more naïve when showing a crime scene. Gao-Sir frowns, cut to potential scuff mark on floor. Dramatic music. Gao-Sir’s eyes snap into focus, cut to fibre visible in a drain. More dramatic music. And so on. In this serial, a balance is being struck between a Sherlock Holmes style of observational detection and the scientific work in the lab. When the team discusses progress, there are always useful flashbacks to remind us what was seen. There are also convenient re-enactments to show what actually happened. Although this approach is sometimes laboured, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see a show prepared to spend time demonstrating the art of critical thinking and deduction. In all this, Bobby Au-Yeung is wonderful. He could have come over as overly serious and unlikeable, yet he manages to portray thoughtfulness and compassion as he runs the forensic department, recovers from grief, and embarks upon an emotionally uncertain courtship. As for his previous screen work, so for this show he was nominated for Best Actor. Mention should also be made of Charmaine Sheh who starts off in the second series playing Madam Ma as unsympathetic, apparently obsessed only with enhancing her own reputation to advance her career. But she slowly grows into an investigator with subtle skills as she unwinds socially and becomes altogether more vulnerable. It’s a well-judged performance over the 30 episodes, earning her a nomination as Best Actress.

So the result of this comparison is acceptance of the cultural difference between the two shows. The Americans don’t like their police procedurals bogged down with family baggage. They want something altogether more brash and pacey. The Cantonese approach is laid back, waiting patiently for drama to grow more organically out of a better approximation of real world situations. These investigators are not restricted to one-off crimes. Everything is linked together, with resonances from the past enlivening the present as criminal scenarios are investigated over multiple episodes and families resolve their issues. This is not to deny the Americans their Lady Heather, Miniature Killer and Dr. Jekyll story arcs, but they are more sporadically distributed across a season as stand-alones, rather than developing naturally from one episode to the next. Both approaches are entertaining in their own way, albeit the Forensic Heroes is quieter in tone and tending to the melodramatic if given half the chance.

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