Thursday, August 31, 2006

Like the new look?

Heidi Mack, my fantastic Webmaven, has worked long and hard on revamping my Website, and you're getting a sneak peek at the new look here.

More soon!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Is it possible that someone is awake about this issue?

Take a look at "Crime Lab Backlogs Extend Beyond DNA" a Kansas City Info Zine article, picked up from

Although much of the article still talks about DNA backlogs, it seems at least one reporter has noticed that DNA isn't the only problem area.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Having a rough day?

Or should I say, a ruff day?

Try a dose of Bark magazine's smiling dogs to cheer you up.

Just go to the magazine's Web site at and click on the link for Smiling Dogs. Who can resist smiling back at these pooches? I like the exuberant Ashley, coy Blenko, candid Candy (both of them), Fergus, Cisco....oh, why bother denying that I could look at dog photos all day?

Alas, I have a ton of work to do, so I'll leave you with that, and a strong recommendation to read Bark, which is by no means a mere pet magazine. As Esquire has said, it's the "coolest dog magazine ever."

Full disclosure here: I was once interviewed for an article in the magazine -- for a story on dogs portrayed in mystery novels. They sent me a year's subscription as a courtesy, and I quickly became hooked.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Spatial Relationships

In this household, it seems that if we buy certain goods, the whole place must be rearranged. A few years ago, we went to IKEA for the first time (an adventure story in and of itself -- I'll save that one for another post) to buy a $20 television cart. I won't say how many weeks and how many dollars later --- but you can be sure it was more than a hundred times the cost of the cart -- we had pulled up the carpeting in five rooms, refinished hardwood floors, consolidated most of our library on new shelves, replaced a couch that had been unaffectionately referred to as "Butt Killer," changed window coverings, and painted a bunch of walls.

I'm not kidding -- this all began with a cheap TV cart. I felt bad until I talked to a man who said that his wife's purchase of a set of towels resulted in redoing a bathroom.

This time, it was a result of the purchase of the recently mentioned new MacBook. I wanted an Internet-free writing space. No offense intended.

We had a hot day here in So Cal, but I got an early start. Cappy, who also happened to deal the death blow to my Powerbook by hooking the cord with his tail and pulling it off a table (you see why I like this new feature?) woke up at about 5:15 this morning and decided I should walk with him to the dog biscuit jar. I didn't know that was our destination when I agreed to get out of bed. Britches, usually willing to put on a canine folk dance exhibit for a cookie, didn't stir for this expedition. Cappy fell back to sleep before I did, so I spent most of the day rearranging the furniture in two rooms in our house, allowing one to be mostly a writing and guest room, and to change my office around to house another computer, the one I use for Internet stuff.

This may make it sound as if I just had two things to move: a computer, and a futon on a frame. Oh no.

But I'm proud that it was just one day's work -- the floors aren't refinished, nothing is getting painted, and I've bought no new furniture.

I did learn that I have no sense of spatial relationships. I can solve a crossword or assemble a jigsaw puzzle, but I was lousy at those little tests they gave us in school where you had to make a rectangle out of pieces that seemed to belong to a triangle. Or a work of abstract art.

I can hear the sound of rolling eyes, so let me say right now that I measured. I did!

I just didn't measure enough dimensions or allow for every condition.

So, if you happen to be in my guest room, and have put on your jammies, before you open the futon out into a bed, be aware that you aren't going to be able to get to the bottom rows of one of the bookshelves, sit at the desk, or the open the closet, and may not be able to open the bathroom door, either.

I'd go to IKEA and try to buy a chamberpot for you, but I don't have time to remodel the house, so I'm not shopping there any time soon.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Goodnight, Irene

I returned from our trip to New York and Buffalo to hear some sad news -- my dear friend Irene Greenleaf passed away on August 11.

I say dear friend, even though Irene and I never met in person. Still, we corresponded for a dozen years, and I cannot express how grateful I am that among the many blessings that have come to me with this career, I can count my connection with Irene Greenleaf.

One of Irene's daughters happened to be visiting Southern California when a notice in the newspaper caught her eye -- a new author would be signing a book called Goodnight, Irene that evening. She couldn't resist getting a copy of the book for her mom. I enjoyed meeting her, and inscribed a copy for her to send along to Irene.

Now, over the years, I've signed a lot of books for a lot of Irenes. But this Irene was unlike any other. She wrote a kind letter almost immediately. There was a liveliness in that letter that I liked from the start. I wrote back.

She sent me a special set of note cards made from flowers, handicrafted by monks -- one of the monks had been a student of hers. Irene was a retired teacher. Her husband, Col. (ret.) John Greenleaf , is a talented artist, and for some years now, a copy of one of his paintings has hung on one of our walls. I would send books or stories, and she would return hand-crafted gifts. Letters and cards -- and for a very brief time, e-mail -- but more than anything, kindness and understanding.

Some of you may find the name Greenleaf familiar -- in Flight, fictional Greenleafs operate a cafe in Las Piernas. I'm told Irene was delighted, and I can only hope it gave her one-tenth the pleasure her letters gave me.

Earlier this year, at an American Academy of Forensic Science meeting, I had the pleasure of meeting one the Academy's esteemed members, Ken Field, who serves as the AAFS's historian. We had no sooner been introduced when he surprised me by saying that he already knew of me and my work, because he was a friend of Irene Greenleaf. Irene was a one-woman promotional force for the Irene Kelly series.

Irene was 86 when she died. She loved reading, music, cooking, and golf. She loved her family. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She asked that her obituary include, "She hated gardening."

I'll miss you, Irene, and see you in my dreams...

Monday, August 14, 2006

"The nation that controls magnetism will control the universe."

Or at least, the power supply for my MacBook.

I won't be able to travel by magnetic coupe, but I'll be away for a few days, and may not have Internet access. If I don't manage to post again before Sunday night, you'll know that I just couldn't find wi-fi.

Meanwhile, safe travels to any of you who are also on the road, and may those of you who are snug at home have a great week!

Oh, and if you don't recognize the quote, look here.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Good News

You've probably seen the words "liquid" and "explosives" together more often than you'd like in the last few days, so maybe you were understandably distracted and missed some good news. It was in the New York Times a couple of days ago, about the time the latest plot was uncovered. "Prognosis Grows Brighter for Barbaro," by Joe Drape, was in the sports pages on 8/10/06, and talks about a change for the better in the Kentucky Derby winner's recovery.

I imagine that at this point in the post, there are several possible responses by my readers. One is shared happiness. Another is a sense that I must have my priorities completely out of whack to include a story about a horse in the same paragraph as mention of a plot that could have killed thousands of people. A few of you may be convinced I have a gambling problem.

For this the last group, I hate to disappoint those of you who are experiencing glee over what you suppose to be the discovery of one of my vices -- but don't feel dejected, just stay tuned, because plenty of other real vices may be revealed along the way. Alas, I seldom get to the races more than once or twice a year, and I'm such an awful handicapper, I take rather paltry sums of money with me -- even if you add in my lunch money -- with no expectation that I'll leave with any of it. I still have lots of fun. Like many other fans, I simply love to watch these magnificient animals run. Excitement at a racetrack goes well beyond what happens at a betting window. You either get it or you don't.

I don't expect that people in the second group understand why Seabiscuit sold so many copies, either. Or, for that matter, why people read the funny papers yesterday. For my part, when you allow your enjoyment of life to be robbed from you by the jerks of this world, you give them something they don't deserve. If you fail to find hope where it is offered, that is something to be pitied indeed.

As for my answer to the plotters, I'm getting on a plane as soon as possible -- so screw you.

The rest of you, rejoice where you may! And all the best to Barbaro and those who care for and about him.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Relief Issue Of EQMM

Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, tells me that there is now a live link for ordering the New Orleans Katrina relief issue of EQMM, which I previously mentioned here.

So for less than the price of most anthologies, you get to read stories by some of the genre's finest short story writers, many with connections to the Big Easy, and learn more about relief efforts in the area -- the advertising space in the magazine is donated to Katrina relief organizations, including Bridge House, the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, Covenant House, Habitat for Humanity, Reader to Reader, Inc., Save the Children, and the Volunteers of America.

A single copy of this issue of the magazine is $3.99+ shipping charges. To learn more, click here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chicago event

If you're in the Chicago area in September, I hope I'll see you at this event!

Beyond CSI: Can Your Local Crime Lab Compete with the Criminals?
Wednesday September 7, 2006 7:30 PM
Skokie Public Library
Mary Radmacher Meeting Room
5215 Oakton
Skokie, Il 60077

I'll be joined by Jan Girten, Deputy Director of the Chicago Division of the Illinois State Crime Laboratory, and Chicago mystery writer Michael Allen Dymmoch for a discussion on how writers use and discover forensic details in their novels, recent developments in forensic science, and how what you see in books, television, and film compares with real-life forensic science. We'll also talk about the Crime Lab Project.

The event is free.

Monday, August 07, 2006

I'll Get There Eventually

This is the part of the cycle of preparing for the release of a new book when I feel overwhelmed by my "To Do" list. I look around my office at the mountain o'paper to sort. Correspondence to answer. Way too big a number in the "Inbox" of my e-mail program indicating the number of unread messages. I see things I need to pack and send off in the mail. (The salt and pepper shakers I thought I had already mailed to my aunt, the book I promised to send to the mother of guy who sat next to me on the plane, a set of stickers for a godchild...) The new manuscript -- for next year's book -- doesn't have enough pages in it and seems like a disaster. (This would incite panic if they hadn't all seemed this way to me at several points along the process.) The distance between today and the publication date seems to be rocketing toward me, while I seem to be climbing a slope that some giant is tilting at an ever-sharper angle beneath my feet.

I've just glanced up at a quotation in a little frame on my wall. "Let nothing disturb thee, let nothing affright thee..." All right. Marginalia from a saint's breviary. Good enough for me.

I'll take a deep breath, another step, and I'll get there eventually.

Good luck with your own steep slopes...

Photo above by Allen Conant, who says of it, "This is a service rail line used to winch supplies up to the Lake Agnew dam in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. It is often used by backpackers and hikers as a shortcut up the Rush Creek trail. It is much longer and steeper than it looks here!"

Friday, August 04, 2006

Beyond three letters

I'm truly happy that the federal government is investing so much money in DNA funding. For certain crimes, especially sexual assaults, and as an aid in identifying John and Jane Does, this will be a big help. It will allow more states to expand their DNA databases, and to catch up on huge backlogs of this type of evidence. It is useful in exonerating individuals, and can prevent police from pursuing false leads. For all these reasons and more, it's absolutely essential that we address the DNA backlogs.

According to an article in the Contra Costa Times, in California, the state lab has "about 275,000 (samples) to process." As far as I can tell, that's not counting samples in other labs throughout the state. California isn't alone in this situation. Many states are in a race against a legal clock: trying to beat statute of limitations snags that apply to older cases, which have already allowed violent felons to escape prosecution for earlier attacks. So DNA funding needs to be adequate and immediate.

But Americans must not limit their support of forensic science to DNA funding alone.

Why not? For many reasons, these among them:

*According to a study by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, DNA evidence is a small percentage of the work done by crime labs. Additionally, many labs, law enforcement agencies, and coroners/ME's offices don't even have the computers they need to track evidence -- these basic needs affect the ability of labs to work with DNA and all other kinds of evidence.

*The FBI's Crime in the United States estimated that 66% of the 16,137 murders in 2004 were committed with firearms. There is an extreme shortage of firearms evidence examiners in the U.S. Because guns often kill from a distance and don't require the shooter to touch the victim, DNA is unlikely to be of use in investigating most of these murders.

* Traffic fatalities involving drunk driving in that same year were higher than the total murder rate -- 16,694 in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Toxicology tests are needed to investigate such cases. DNA does not prove whether a person was intoxicated or otherwise chemically impaired while driving.

*DNA works by comparison. When a sample of an unknown suspect's DNA is taken from a crime scene or victim, it can't help solve a crime until it is found to match that of a known individual. The known individual's DNA sample is usually obtained in one of two ways:

1) law enforcement detectives use other evidence (such as fingerprints, trace evidence, footwear impressions) and investigative techniques to find a suspect. Subject to evidence law, an arrested suspect's DNA is sampled at that point. If it matches the crime scene DNA, the case goes forward. So other kinds of evidence were important even in this situation.

2) if no suspect is known, then a DNA "cold hit" is needed. This happens if an unknown suspect's crime scene DNA is matched to the DNA of someone known because he or she is in the DNA database. This happens more and more often as the DNA database grows, and makes DNA more powerful as a crime-fighting tool. But ask yourself how that individual's DNA got into the database in the first place. Usually, through a felony conviction (state laws vary re: whose DNA is sampled). And how did the felony conviction come about? Very often, through other kinds of evidence, and often for a different type of crime -- burglary, drug possession, etc. That means, for example, that a toxicology test in a drug possession case may lead to a DNA sample going into the database and ultimately helping with a cold hit in a rape case or a murder. On the other hand, if these other kinds of evidence are backlogged or ignored, that individual's case may be dismissed and a chance to obtain a DNA sample lost. Read DNA cold hit news stories carefully, and you will almost always see that another type of forensic science was involved in convicting the criminal who gave that database sample.

*Latent prints (fingerprints) lead to many more arrests each year than DNA, can usually be obtained more quickly, and at a fraction of the cost. The database for fingerprints is many times larger than that of DNA. Yet this area is grossly underfunded on the local level -- the nation's law enforcement agencies are often relying on outdated technology, do not have the basic equipment they need to make use of databases, and do not have the trained personnel on hand to properly obtain fingerprints from arrestees and convicts. Interoperability is also a huge issue that we should use our resources to resolve.

*Let's take the case of DNA being used to identify a body in the woods. And perhaps to tell us who had contact with the body. Even if DNA can be used to answer those key questions, taken alone, it doesn't tell us if the contact was for a legitimate reason, and it can't tell us the cause of death, how long the body has lain there, if the dead person died there or elsewhere, if the individual was drugged, or answer many other questions. Answering "Who?" is an important part of any criminal investigation, but what, where, how, when, and many other questions must also be answered. That requires more than one form of evidence.

DNA is a valuable form of evidence, and as new research and developments in technology continue, it will only become more valuable. But we should not believe that it is the only form of evidence we should pursue or fund. That's a case that can't be made.