D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar Award nominated author of the nonfiction books, Murder and Mayhem, Forensics for Dummies, Forensics and Fiction, and Howdunnit: Forensics: A Guide for Writers, as well as thrillers, Devil's Playground, and Double Blind.
His next medical thriller, Stress Fracture, will be released in early 2010.
He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular TV shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women's Murder Club, and 1-800-Missing.
He is a practicing Cardiologist in Orange County, California.
Through his website, The Writers' Medical and Forensics Lab (www.dplylemd.com) he works with writers and readers to enrich their understanding of complex medical and forensic issues in the stories they write and read.
A Big Welcome to D.P. Lyle!
Doug Lyle impressed me at Thrillerfest two years ago. I was new to ITW, and Doug took time to sit and chat with me and answer my questions. A charter member of International Thriller Writers, Doug is active in ITW and is their CraftFest Chair.
I appreciate Doug Lyle for being our featured guest today. He will respond to comments and questions today after 3:00PM Mountain Time - until 8:00PM Mountain Time.
Anyone who posts a comment or question today (August 26th) may win FORENSICS: A Guide For Writers, or a Lecture Packet from me. I'll draw the two winning names at 8:30PM Mountain Time.
Here's what experts have to say about Doug Lyle's how-to books:
"A terrific resource for crime writers and anyone interested in forensics . . . will jump-start your imagination about all kinds of ingenious crimes, crime-solving techniques, and plot twists." Matt Witten, supervising producer of the Fox TV show, House.
"Every crime-fiction author's best friend . . . as essential to my library as my Strunk and White." -- Hallie Ephron, author of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.
"There's damn good reason why Dr. Doug Lyle's e-mail is in every crime writer's address book and why his reference books belong on every aspiring writer's book shelf: His advice comes from the head of a medical expert but also from the heart and imagination of a writer. Whenever I paint myself into a forensic corner, Dr. Doug is always there to rescue me." -- P. J. Parrish, author of An Unquiet Grave
ML: Your forensics books for writers are full of CSI-type information, only your info is correct. :-) Please tell our blog guests about some of the topics you cover in Howdunnit: Forensics: A Guide for Writers.
DL: My plan all along was to write the definitive book on forensics for writers. I wanted to cover each and every subject. When I did Forensics for Dummies I was able to cover many of the subjects, just not in the detail I wanted. And they did not want any historical information but rather only current information on forensics. This book has a great deal of historical information about things such as how forensic toxicology or fire arms examination or fingerprinting came to be. I find this material fascinating and I know that many writers tell stories that are not set in the present day and indeed can be back to prehistoric times or even just fifty years ago. They need to know what the state of the art was at that time in order to make their stories real and believable and I believe that this book gives them much of the information they will need.
Things covered in this book are DNA, blood analysis including blood spatter, fingerprint and shoe print patterns toxicology, psychiatry, document examination, forensic chemistry and biology, and a host of other topics.
ML: Do you know of instances where the killer deliberately attempted to disguise the actual time of death? What was the outcome?
DL: Actually, there have been many cases where this has occured. One of the most clever involved freezing the body and then dumping it months later. Freezing would slow the decay process making it very difficult for the medical examiner to determine the time of death. He can tell by looking at the tissues under the microscope that they have been frozen suddenly because the ice crystals that form within the cells at the time of the freezing fractures the cells and this is visible. But if the body is frozen for a few months and then is dumped in a rural area and then not found until severely decayed then this microscopic evidence may not be present, it can be very difficult for the medical examiner to determine that the body has been frozen. After the first 48 hours then things such as temperature, lividity pattern, and rigor mortis are of no use. Here the medical examiner relies on insect activity and degree of decay to give him the best guess as to the approximate time of death. Freezing the body for a time alters this time line and makes it very difficult.
ML: Could you describe a situation where forensic evidence (such as decay cycle of sperm) proved an alleged rape victim was lying.
DL: That's a difficult one because the term rape is not in the medical vocabulary. The medical examiner will not use that term in his evaluation or in his autopsy report. He can only say that penetration occurred and that semen was found and that therefore sexual intercourse took place. Whether this was consensual or not is determined by a judge and jury.
There was an extremely interesting case involving semen analysis a couple of years ago. A man was convicted of rape on DNA evidence from semen collected from the victim. He denied that he did it but the DNA evidence sealed the deal for him. Then another young lady came forward saying that she had been raped. When the DNA analysis was done, it matched the DNA of the previous victim and matched the DNA of the incarcerated felon.
How could this be?
He argued that someone else had the same DNA as him and that it must be the case since he was incarcerated at the time of the second rape.
It turns out that the second victim was not raped. She was a friend of a friend of the felon. He had smuggled his own semen out of prison through his friend. To accomplish this, he deposited his semen in one of those tear-open ketchup packs. The alleged victim then used this to stage her own rape. I get the feeling this guy could have been quite successful had he chosen another path because he is defnitely quite clever.
ML: Is there political pressure placed on forensic investigatiors to push investigations in one direction or another? Could you describe some examples?
I'm sure this happens all the time and with lab results making the recent news (thereby swaying cases) there's probably a great deal of this that goes on behind the scenes. This is one of the current pushes in the forensic world to standardize the tests and to clean up the credentials of those who perform them. Since forensic sciences is such a new field, it is going through its growing pains right now and it has not all been hammered out yet. Add to this the fact that according to the Daubert Decision, which allows the trier of fact -- the judge -- to decide what evidence enters his courtroom, you can see how the stage is set for all types of shenanigans. What this rule allows is for the judge, and the judge alone, to decide whether a scientific test is credible and if it is allowable in the courtroom. It is interesting that the judge is one of the least qualified people to make this decision, but the judge has the absolute power in this regard. If the judge wants to admit the testimony of a crackpot they can. If they want to block the testimony of a well respected scientist, they can do that too.
The crime lab is typically in constant communication with the investigating officers and the district attorney. This is simply because much of the testing will help guide their investigation and it saves a lot of time and energy and money. So far so good. But a smart and aggressive investigator or district attorney can pressure the lab to say things that may not be entirely true. They can color their report slightly to help them obtain a search warrant or to lead them toward one suspect versus another. We would like to think this does not happen very often and indeed it probably doesn't. But the potential for abuse of the system was there.
ML: In recent years we've seen increasing use of DNA evidence to solve crimes. How do you feel future DNA technology can expand the science of solving crimes?
One area is that DNA is being found in smaller and smaller samples. Right now a single cell is all that is necessary to produce usable DNA and therefore a match. This means that large samples are not necessary and a felon can leave behind his DNA without realizing it. Not just blood and semen, but on the lip of a cup or a postage stamp, and more recently even on a fingerprint. When you think about it, fingerprints are basically skin oils and cells that are deposited by touch, the cells within the print contain DNA and this can be used to create a profile.
A more problematic development is the recent research that came from Israel where scientists were able to manufacture someone's genetic profile in the lab. They actually incorporated this into various body fluids after removing all the DNA from that fluid. If you remove the donor's DNA and add artificially produced DNA then you have basically altered the sample to the point that he would give the wrong answer. They actually gave samples to various labs and had them test for DNA and none of them realized what had been done. Now this is not the kind of thing that your average criminal can do at his kitchen table or in his garage. But the potential for making fake DNA and leaving the wrong person's DNA at the scene is real. Where this will lead, I have no idea. But it is very troubling.
ML: You also published another handy reference for suspense writers, Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Ingenious, and Downright Odd Questions from Crime Writers. Love the title, love the book!
You share everything from what is included in an autopsy report and why -- to whacky and whackier questions posed by writers. Here's a sample:
---Can botox be used as a weapon for murder?
---Could a recent blood transfusion confuse DNA analysis?
---Can an injection of potassium kill a hospitalized patient quickly?
---Can a death-row inmate be saved after receiving a lethal injection?
---Can a death-row inmate be saved after receiving a lethal injection?
---How long can a balloon with heroin remain intact within a 'mule's' stomach?
Please share one of your favorite questions and answers from Forensics and Fiction.
DL: When talking about my question-and-answer books, I always point out that I'm not responsible for the questions, only the answers. The questions are amazing and truly point out how the creative mind works. I am always fascinated by how people create their stories and the questions I get asked for a peek into that world.
The questions you listed above are examples of that. Other questions in the book deal with how crucifixion causes death, do zombies leave behind forensic evidence, does a corpse decay on Mars, would Abraham Lincoln have survived with modern medical care, was DNA available in the early 1990's, can mercury be found in a murder victim's hair a year after death, and many others. The answers are asphyxia and shock, zombies have fingerprints and blood and hair and fibers, Mars is too cold for decay to occur, Honest Abe would have easily survived today (so would Princess Diana had she been in the U.S.), DNA fingerprinting was discovered in 1984 and first entered the courtroom in the U.S. in 1987, and mercury can be found in hair even hundreds of years later.
ML: The last section in Forensics and Fiction is named: Odds and Ends--Mostly Odds. Want to treat our blog guests to something odd?
DL: One of my favorite questions was included in the same section of my first question-and-answer book, Murder and Mayhem. In this scenario a teenage girl lived next door to another couple. The female neighbor was having an affair with the teen's father and she wanted to do something to get even. The questioner asked if there was something she could do to the woman's diaphragm that would cause her some discomfort or concern. Being a Southerner, there was only one answer -- Tabasco. Think about it.
ML: Congratulations on Stress Fracture, to be released in April, 2010. I want to know more. What's the scoop on your upcoming thriller?
DL: This book is the first in a new series starring Dub Walker, an evidence and criminal behavior expert. He has written many books on these subjects, lectures on them frequently, and consults on unusual cases. In Stress Fracture, he is asked to help track down an over-the-top brutal killer who seems to have no real motive and no filter as far as victim selection. He does not follow any of the usualy behavior patterns and from a forensic psychiatric point of view, seems to be both organized and disorganized, careful and impulsive, at the same time.
The second book in the series, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, deals with robotic surgery and some nefarious characters. It is completed and sold and is undergoing the editorial processes right now.
The third in the series, Run to Ground, is under way and I'm nearing completion of the first draft. it deals with a couple who change their identity and drop off the radar completely. Suspected of murder, Dub must find a way to track them down and then prove their guilt or innocence.
ML: Please fill us in about The Writers Medical and Forensics Lab. I bet they'll want to check it out.
DL: My website began as a place where writers could come to get medical and forensic information and ask questions about their works in progress. It has not changed since its inception. I still have articles on there including things like the perfect murder, the untraceable poison, how the medical examiner determines the time of death, and a historical forensic timeline. There is also a link so that writers can send me questions about their stories.
I have now added a blog which I call The Writers Forensics Blog where I talk about current cases and news stories and attempt to explain the medical and forensic issues behind them. There is a link to my blog on my website and I hope some of your readers will visit.
ML: Thank you for taking the time to provide such thorough responses to my questions. I appreciate your time and your expertise!
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