While I spend a good part of my day writing crime books, I spend another part attending college as a criminal justice major. It’s true most of the people in my class expect to be a cop of some sort when they graduate, but I am more interested in investigations. In fact, I’m taking a criminal investigations class this semester! The stuff I have learned so far, definitely helps me be a better crime writer
What does one learn in a criminal investigation
class? A lot. We have covered forensic stuff like how to recognize basic fingerprint types – arch, loop and whorl. How to take fingerprints. We have also covered what type of evidence is most
likely to contain DNA
. (drinking glasses, underwear, bloody rags) We have learned that a single strand of hair can inform one of gender, race, age, true hair color, and general health. We have also learned that the definition of homicide is the killing of one human by another human and that murder is the unlawful killing of another human without justification or excuse. We know that murders are always homicides but homicides are not always murders.
The most important thing I have learned, however, in terms of both writing and investigating: is that chronology is king. That is to say, when trying to piece together an investigation, one must do it in chronological order
. Even though this may seem self-evident, there is a big tendency (myself included) to jump back and forth in time while stepping through the crime. My advice is: don’t do it. It’s too confusing for the reader (and an investigations process). I have found that if everything is put in precise time order, the reader doesn’t have to think so hard. They can just enjoy the read.
For instance, this week my class was given the assignment to review the Jon Benet Ramsey
case and list the things that were done wrong by the Boulder Colorado Police and then list what the police should have done. The general facts of the case are that on the morning of December 26, 1996, a six year old girl was found missing by her mother who simultaneously discovered a ransom note on the stairs. The mother called 911, the police came and about seven hours later the child was found by her father. She was discovered in the basement of her own house – murdered. The crime was never solved and the parents were (and still are by many) considered the prime suspects.
The first thing I did was make a time line of events for the initial 24 hours. Once I did that, many mistakes were obvious. Here is a the first few entries in my time line. Can you see with this time line, even without professional training, some of the things that were done wrong?
1. 2 AM neighbor hears scream.
2. 5:45 JBR found missing by mom
3. 5:48 mom finds kidnapper’s ransom note on stairs
4. 5:52 mom calls police – 911
5. 5:55 JBR parents call two sets of family friends to come over to the house
6. 5:59 police arrive – Officer
French – 1st
7. 6 AM Officer French makes a quick search of the house with dad, John Ramsey
, then looks for entry/exit points. He sees no sign of struggle. Did not search “wine cellar room” in basement because it was “locked”.
8. 6:03 am – “friends” arrive including Fleet White
9. 6:20 am Fleet White searches basement. Mr White sees lights on in the basement and “wine cellar” door open. Mr White sees broken window in the basement and a suitcase along with a broken shard of glass under the window. (Note: later he did not remember if the window was open or closed.) Mr White opens the wine cellar door but doesn’t see anything because he can’t find the light switch.
10. 6:25 Officer French seals off JBR’s bedroom only
11. 6:45 Three more BPD arrive
12. 7 am Burke (JBR’s brother) awakened
Based on only the above facts, did mistakes jump out at you? Some of the things I saw was: the first officer on the scene (who was the Boulder Police Chief
) did not secure the entire house as a crime scene, the parents and their friends were allowed to remain in the house and roam freely, thus contaminating evidence. The police officer, when searching the house initially, did not open a locked door in the basement. This is where the body was eventually found. There is no mention of experts like the FBI
being called in immediately. (They weren’t called until three hours later). The brother, who slept on the same floor of the house as the sister was not awakened and questioned for an hour.
Obviously, there was a mountain of mistakes in this case and many books have been written discussing these mistakes. But in this case, like any other case, the easiest way to begin to understand the crime and to find discrepancies, is to put the events in time order. I recommend when writing about crime, be it true crime or crime fiction, always put the sequences in chronological order, do not jump around in time. It builds tension naturally and makes it easier for the reader to follow and to possibly solve the crime.
Escaping the Arroyo
is available on ebook and paperback at
- Joyce Nance Spotlight (laemonie.wordpress.com)