‘Stephen King moments’ in the shadow of the Galway gasometer

Date Published: 19-May-2011

Iwas flicking idly through the television channels in recent days and was struck by the number of versions there were of what I would call the ‘CSI style’ of programme, where investigators take us through the nitty gritty of crime scene examinations.

Obviously, the work of forensic scientists has become big box office among the television production companies who don’t spare the ‘realism’, on occasion.

There has always been a grim fascination with the subject in murder, but, I presume, that the likes of the Hannibal Lecter novels, by Thomas Harris, has hugely stoked this genre with all its grim reality.

 

The other major works in this area have to be those of Patricia Cornwell, with her creation of pathologist Dr Kay Scarpetta, though I think the most macabre in this whole area has to be the work of Harris and his monster creation, Dr Lecter, the serial killer with a delicate, somewhat haute cuisine taste for cannibalism.

Of course, the Oscar winning portrayal of Lecter by Anthony Hopkins became the definitive version of the character – I have to say that I found it scary for the sheer stillness of the man, the stillness as the eyes followed the prey, and the vulnerability of Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).

Betimes, I have found the whole concept of the Thomas Harris books and their ‘hero’ Lecter, as deeply disturbing . . . but no more so than the idea that television series have been built by production companies about what happens in post mortem examination rooms around the world.

For the origins of this queasy feeling I go back to my mitching days in primary school. I might have been entirely ignorant of what was going on in school, but that did not mean that I was illiterate . . . and for some crazy reason I happened to pick up a book which was in my father’s collection which was called Lord Darling’s Famous Cases.

 

This was a biography based on one of the most famous judges in the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in London and the book was, essentially, a series of short stories based around famous murder trials over which he had presided.

Interesting reading indeed . . . but hardly for a 10-years-old who was playing truant hiding in turf sheds, abandoned cars and out in the countryside and who was highly impressionable.

The book would have covered cases such as that of the murderer Dr Harvey Hawley Crippen – a homeopathic physician who tired of his nagging wife, fell for another woman, poisoned the wife, buried her in the back garden and then began the process of spending the late wife’s money.

Unfortunately for the pair of them, the new ‘wife’ was an ostentatious spender and when she was seen wearing the jewellery of the wife who Dr Crippen maintained was living in America, the game was up. This was just a few years into the 20th century and, interestingly, the word for their arrest was transmitted by wireless – the first such use of international wireless in the world.

The evidence that proved crucial in Dr Crippen’s trial before Lord Justice Darling was given by ‘the father of modern forensic medicine’, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. For though there was little left of the body of Mrs Crippen when the police dug the garden, they found a piece of skin which Sir Bernard was able to match to an operation which Mrs Crippen had undergone some years previously.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.