So here’s my annual reminder that I am not a nonfiction fan. This has been on my TBR list long enough that I don’t remember why it got there, but it was likely podcast-related. And it’s fine! I’m sure if you like nonfiction you would enjoy it! But the subject of the book is basically a jerk, and reading about real-life jerks is not my favorite thing, no matter how interesting the history might be.
Oscar Heinrichs was a self-taught chemist who read and studied everything voraciously, eventually teaching himself (and most of the law enforcement and justice system in 1920s California) forensics and ground-breaking crime-solving techniques. He pioneered many techniques that are still in use today, and a couple that are semi-discredited (blood-spatter and handwriting analysis).
He was also a penny-pinching egomaniac who took it WAY too personally when another expert took the stand to refute him. I don’t care how brilliant he was, he was not fun to read about. Each chapter is about a different case (with some circling back to one particular case as an awkward framing device), with a description of how he interpreted the clues and how his evidence affected the case. He was apparently also snooty and unpleasant on the stand, and jurors didn’t like him and didn’t trust the new science, so often all his work didn’t end up solving the case at all.
Also, the author did an incredible job researching and compiling everything, but every once in a while she tries to get into the head of a victim or a criminal, which seems weird for a nonfiction book. These people have been dead for 80 years! How does she know they were thinking about what to make for dinner tomorrow right before they were killed? Maybe this is a normal thing in nonfiction, trying to humanize these long-dead ‘characters?’ It just felt weird. “Roy faced the mail car, readying himself to go inside the blackness. It was too daunting – he refused to explore the carriage without someone there to protect him.” How does she know that??? (It is a cool story about a botched train robbery, though.)
Overall, it was interesting hearing about these long-ago crimes and the developing forensics we all hear so much about today, but it wasn’t my favorite reading experience.