Non-Fiction Reviews

Planting Clues

How plants solve crimes

(2022) David J. Gibson, Oxford University Press, £18.99, hrdbk, 240pp, ISBN 978-0-198-86860-6


Crime scene investigation stories have increasingly gained popularity both in crime procedural and detective fiction novels as well as on television. For example, the BBC has its Silent Witness (1996-present), whereas over in the States there is NCIS (2003-present) and shows like these have propelled forensic science to the fore. If my former colleagues at what was the Institute of Biology (now rebranded as the Royal Society of Biology) in the 2010s forensic biology was a popular are of interest among senior school pupils studying biology (when I started out at the IoB in the 1980s the popular choice was marine biology).  Characters, such as NCIS's Abigail ('Abby') Beethoven Sciuto, seem almost to have a super-power using scientific analysis to make critical deductions in crime investigations. Indeed, the latter's expertise with computer technology, biochemical analysis, whole-organism biology and ecology is most unrealistic: too much expertise across a broad range of almost unrelated fields. But such forensic science characters do make for great stories and both these television series have garnered many millions of viewers in their respective countries and far, far more globally.

So, what of real-life forensic science? Well, step up botanist David Gibson. He graduated from Reading University. Now, so as to reassure you, gentle reader, that this is not a fix up I openly reveal that his time there must have overlapped with my own, as I used to live next to its main campus and had a gap period in the mid-1970s working at the university's NIRD (National Institute for Research into Dairying), so quite likely we both had a beer at the same time in the Whiteknights Student's Union. Having said that, I have never met the man and so you can be assured that this book review is impartial. David Gibson is now based in the US but he also serves as part of the British Ecological Society's Journal of Ecology editorial board, so he still has UK links. Importantly, this book is based on a university course module Gibson teaches on Forensic Botany.

With Planting Clues: How plants solve crimes David Gibson provides an engaging introduction, eminently readable – to the lay person with just a basic O-level/GSCE (16 year old school level) science – introduction to plant related forensic science. Having said that, it is reasonably academically referenced and so those who wish continue with a more in depth study of the subject matter can do so.

The book heavily relies on past, real-life examples albeit with names changed to protect innocent individuals related to these incidents. This is a formula that works very well as it not only enables Gibson to explain the science used to garner evidence but also relate that science – that otherwise might seem too theoretical – to real-life applications in an almost personal way (it was certainly personal to those brought to justice). So in one sense there is an element of the book containing many flash detective fiction stories, though they are actually real, and these really do draw the reader in.

One thing, of a number, I learned from this book is that forensic science as a recognised discipline is relatively young and has actually grown substantially during Gibson's lifetime: I had mistakenly assumed that what with the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, the use of fingerprints since before I was born, etc., that all regional police forces each had their own full-time forensic scientists for most of the 20th century. Not so apparently, and there are a number of incidents in Planting Clues with plod neglecting evidence or, worse, thoughtlessly trampling all over it. (Plod by name; plod by…)

The book begins with a kidnap that became a murder case from 1932 in the US which was one of the first times a court recognised that there was such a thing as an expert witness. In this case a forester not only identified the type of wood the kidnapper used to make a ladder employed in the crime, but the type of cutter machine used to form the planks. From that, it was then possible to identify the mill providing the wood, and from the speed at which the cuts were made (which the mill varied) it was possible to track where this wood went. Other marks, matched tools (a plane) in the culprit's own tool box.

The first chapter concludes with other tree-related evidence used in crime detection before moving on to the principle of multiple routes of biological transference between victim, scene, evidence and suspect.

The book then moves into more yucky aspects with food digestion as an aid to estimated time since death, as well as bodily fluids and faecal samples.

Much can also be learned from microscopic botanical evidence using pollen grains and diatoms. Apparently, the silica (glass like) parts of diatoms can end up in a victims' bone marrow if they drowned in the pond in which their corpse was found and opposed to being dumped there after the murder. Such knowledge, as Gibson reveals through examples given, can undermine a suspect's account of events.

The book then moves on to very clearly describe genomic aspects to forensic science and this is a particular accomplishment for the author as I have seen the molecular biology explained so confusingly and in unnecessarily complicated ways far too many times before. So it is pleasingly refreshing that the coverage here is particularly clear and concise.

Then there are plant-based poisons and here we get not only contemporary cases but historical ones too, including the likely method of murder employed on the Roman Emperor Claudius (not David Jacobi, the other one).

The last substantive chapter deals with the illegal traffic of plants be they the basis of narcotics or ecologically invasive species.

Finally, we get a coda with something touched upon in the introduction and that is 'plant blindness'. The thing is that very few people can correctly identify the majority of plants found in the countryside, or even garden. Today you can even use what I believe youngster call an 'app' on their mobile/cell to instantly identify species. Fair enough, most know a rose from a daisy, but what species is it? You may be surprised that this problem of 'plant blindness' is a real issue in science itself. Gibson laments the decline in botany departments (most are now merged with departments of biological sciences). Now, I do sympathise with the author's concern which is something relevant on both sides of the Pond, but I feel he is being parochial: the problem is far bigger than just 'plant blindness' and is part of a larger issue that affects other sciences such as my own (environmental science) and the allied discipline I straddle (geoscience). Gibson is in a position to do something about it. However, a book review is no place to address this issue and so I will explore how science may be destroying itself elsewhere. Meanwhile back to the book…

Not only is Planting Clues a great and fascinating read that will be devoured by both those lay folk into popular science and crime procedural stories alike, but also those who have studied biological sciences, are doing so, or are thinking of embarking on a bioscience course. Indeed, older school pupils toying with taking their studies further, vaguely contemplating becoming a real-life NCIS Abby Sciuto, will find it particularly interesting as a window into the real-life subject.

My one complaint is not with the book but an aspect of editorial style of which Oxford University Press (OUP) is sadly not alone: so I am not picking on OUP. If a publishing house's style (not just OUP's) dictates that the academic references be severed from the chapter end and put them at the back of the book, then for goodness' sake please keep the chapter titles (not just the chapter number) at the head of each batch of citations. Chapter titles occur at the top of every page of the respective chapter but the chapter number does not, and if you are dipping in to a book, and want to follow up on a reference, it is a right pain to have to flip back and forth: from where the reader is to the beginning of the chapter to identify its number, and then to the end to the references; much better to look to the top of the page the reader is on to ascertain the chapter title and then straight to the back of the book to the references. This is something that OUP and other publishers who thoughtlessly follow this style do need to address, not at commissioning editor level but by senior editorial management! This is a zero-cost issue and publishers would be plain daft not to address it.

My little rant over and it should come as no surprise to you that I highly recommend Planting Clues.

Jonathan Cowie


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