Reviews

When is Botany criminal? When it’s forensic!

Murder Most Florid: Inside the Mind of a Forensic Botanist by Mark A. Spencer 2019. Quadrille Publishing Ltd.

I’m aware that there are ill-informed people who think that botany is a little bit boring and not worthy of their consideration. Well, if that’s what you think, but are open to being persuaded otherwise, then I recommend Murder most florid* by Mark Spencer. As the title suggests it combines murder (and other serious crimes) and plants. If that hasn’t grabbed your attention, I don’t know what will!

Be advised: Murder most florid contains detailed accounts of crime scenes – which we learn are more correctly termed deposition scenes – and the process of examining such sites. It’s therefore maybe just as well that the book is illustration-free.

In summary, Spencer’s book provides a personal account of how a Botanist uses his understanding of plant biology to help solve some of the most serious crimes humans can commit. With crimes such as murder and sexual assault, it’s clearly important to find out ‘who dunnit’, and forensic science has an important part to play in that. However, the aspect of forensic science – forensic botany** [defined as “the use of plants and plant parts in the investigation of criminal cases, legal questions, disputes, or, in non-criminal cases, to ascertain cause of death or former location”] – Spencer writes about is primarily aimed at establishing “where it was dunn”.

In that regard, the close and careful observation of vegetation and aspects of plant growth and development in which Spencer specialises are part of the broader science of environmental forensics. For example, the particular assemblage of plant bits – such as leaf fragments and invisible-to-the-naked-eye pollen – on a suspect’s clothing or trapped in the mud on their shoes can provide invaluable clues to the environment that the suspect has been in. That information in turn can help to identify the site – or limit the number of possible sites to be investigated – where a murder may have taken place, or a body buried. Whilst such information on its own may not be enough to solve a case, it is an important component of the painstaking process of building-up evidence to present in a court of law. Forensic botany is therefore a valuable addition to the other forensic disciplines we may be more familiar with from such TV programmes as the UK’s Silent Witness series and the various CSI [crime scene investigation] franchises in the USA.

Despite the importance of judge Trenchard’s statement in the Lindbergh kidnapping case – when the use of botany in criminal investigations was acknowledged to be “on a comparable footing to other science-based techniques such as fingerprint analysis” (p. 61) – forensic botany is apparently not that well known. Although that may be understandable amongst the general population, it also appears to be the case amongst the policing fraternity – who should know better (and which lack of understanding Spencer does mention…). Perhaps the book should be considered essential reading for all would-be police officers and detectives..?

To demonstrate the value of forensic botany, Murder most florid uses examples from Spencer’s own cases (without names, etc. to preserve confidentiality!), which gives his text a most personal dimension. But, he also mentions other famous cases – e.g. the kidnapping of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, and the first murder conviction using plant DNA – that he’s not worked on, but which illustrate points or techniques of the forensic botanist’s art.

Although much of the book deals with murder and sexual assault, Chapter 12 extends use of forensic botany to other areas, thereby demonstrating its wider applicability and relevance to the solving of crime. Consequently, Murder most florid contains a wealth of information concerning the practical uses of forensic botany. Importantly, Importantly, Spencer makes a great case for the relevance of traditional skills of fieldwork and plant ID in forensic botany – alongside such hi-tech methods as DNA analysis. Accordingly, he argues for the need to invest in plant education [yes, plant blindness is mentioned!] to create the expertise needed for the next generation of forensic botanists.

A very good start for this book was the cover where the author was shown as Dr Mark Spencer. Note the absence of a full stop after the abbreviation Dr for doctor,*** a most encouraging sign of accuracy and attention to detail – and which one should expect from a practitioner of forensic botany where accuracy is crucial. But, such laudable attention to detail is undermined somewhat by the two mentions of the Norton case. On p. 14 we read that Joanne Nelson was murdered in 2004. However, on p. 94 we are told that she went missing on Valentine’s Day in 2005. A quick bit of internet research reveals that Joanne Nelson was murdered by Paul Dyson on 13th or 14th of February 2005, which presumably lays to rest the inconsistency of the matter of dating here. Another point where a clarification is in order is on p. 89 where Spencer states that “pollen is the plant equivalent of sperm”. It isn’t, as explained here, by a well-known botanical commentator.

Even though Murder most florid deals with several quite technical matters (which are fully explained in-text), the author advises us that “This work [i.e. the book not the work of the forensic botanist!] is not an academic work…” (p. 162). I will not therefore make my usual comments upon the lack of references for statements made. It is, however, a great pity that no references are provided because otherwise this book would be a most useful source for examples of the ways in which plants are used in forensics. I used to provide a lecture on this topic to my students, and getting sufficient examples of phytoforensics was always a problem.** For those who’d like to take their forensic botany reading further, a 5-item Reading List is provided, but that only lists books.****

But, for all its declared ‘non-academicness’, Murder most florid is a great example of (plant) science communication, and contains a wealth of factual information delivered in an understandable way. Some of the interesting things I learnt were: Mendel’s peas were, apparently, Lathyrus oleraceus;***** the use of brambles as ‘vegetable calendars’; the main function of the leaf; shadows cast by hairs – e.g. on leaves – help to reduce leaf temperature; good ways of describing reticulate and parallel leaf venation for non-specialists (provided they are at least a little bit familiar with layout of railway tracks at a major London railway station…); and that there are at least four forms of drowning… I also learnt some new words: Necrobiome, and its synonym thanatomicrobiome (e.g. Gulnaz Javan et al. (2016), Front. Microbiol. 7:225. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2016.00225]; Wei Zhou & Yingnan Bian, Forensic Sciences Research 3(2): 105-110, 2018; doi: 10.1080/20961790.2018.1466430), and adipocere – alternatively known as grave wax, corpse wax, or mortuary wax…

Considering the book’s sub-title – Inside the Mind of a Forensic Botanist – you do get inside the author’s ’mind’ to some extent. For all the objective, independent science in forensic botany, it is undertaken by humans who are often subjective, judgmental, and emotional. It was therefore rather refreshing to read how one human – author Mark Spencer – copes with work that so often reveals the inhumanity of others. Spencer’s writing is in parts very personal and honest and we get to know him as a real person with foibles [although I entirely understand and share his views on John Smith’s bitter and lager] and doubts and a back-story. We share the author’s frustration that too often he doesn’t know the outcome of the cases involved (an alarming number appear to be as yet unsolved…), or whether his forensic botany input has actually helped solve the crime, or has even been acted upon [e.g. “As is often the case, I didn’t hear from the police about how the investigation proceeded” (p. 112) (!)].

Being part autobiography, part forensic botany handbook, part natural history treatise, it’s quite difficult to assign the book to a particular established genre of writing. But, its subject matter certainly suits it to the ‘plants-and-people’ category, which is more than good enough for me!

One thing’s for sure, though: Murder most florid isn’t exactly a recruitment advert for forensic botany. Or, maybe it is, because it tells it how it is: “forensics is not glamorous” (p. 53); “Usually the work is slow and laborious…” (p. 53); and, “Not for the first time I’ve just stood in someone’s crap…” (p. 66). If you’re not put off by that, and you like the idea of combining an intimate knowledge of botany with detailed, puzzle-solving, then forensic botany is something to consider. We can certainly do with more practitioners of this technically-demanding, intellectually-satisfying work.

One of the book’s stated objectives is to give insight into the world of forensic botany: This is admirably achieved! Thanks to Murder most florid the role of forensic botany should now be known to a wider audience.

Summary

For a very readable, engaging insight into the world of forensic botany, and insights into the mind of a forensic botanist – Murder most florid by Mark Spencer is highly recommended.


* It’s not made clear where the book’s title comes from, but it reminds me of the phrase “murder most horrid”, which calls to mind the comedy series of the same name in which English comedian Dawn French plays different characters “embroiled in murder”. Lest this aside create any confusion or doubt, Murder most florid is not a humorous book(!).

** For more on forensic botany, try the following sources/resources: Heather Miller Coyle et al., Croat Med J. 46(4): 606-612, 2005; PMID: 16100764; Bandr Fakia, International Journal of Development Research 8(10): 23294-23297, 2008; here; here; here; here; here; here; and here.

***If an abbreviation consists of the first and last letters of a word, the British rule is not to include a full stop/period at the end”.

**** If trying to track down any of the listed items, it’s worth noting that the editors of the Forensic Ecology Handbook appear to be the wrong way round, and no publishers are noted for any of the books listed…

***** Having always assumed that ‘plant researching monk’ Gregor Mendel used garden peas – Pisum sativum – in his pea genetics experiments, Spencer’s revelation caused me to do some forensic botany of my own. This is what my ‘phytosleuthing’ unearthed. Apparently, Lathyrus oleraceus is a synonym for Pisum sativum. Even though P. sativum is the preferred scientific name, synonymy suggests one could use either name. However, having discovered that the name L. oleraceus is invalid, that option appears closed. Furthermore, just looking at a handful of readily-found articles about Mendel, and his peas and which expressed a view on his experimental organism’s scientific name – e.g. Anthony JF Griffiths et al., An Introduction to Genetic Analysis. 7th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Mendel’s experiments; Ilona Miko (2008) Gregor Mendel and the principles of inheritance. Nature Education 1(1):134; Norman F Weedon, Journal of Heredity 107: 635–646, 2016; https://doi.org/10.1093/jhered/esw058; and – all state that Mendel used garden pea – Pisum sativum

4 comments

    1. Hello Katya,

      That thought also occurred to me, but it’s not as puntastic…

      Be safe,

      Nigel.

  1. Hi, thanks for the generous review of my book. And, thanks for pointing out the typo relating Joanna Nelson’s death, I’ll change that.

    Regarding Pisum/Lathyrus. I followed the nomenclature used in the standard UK flora (Stace ed 4) and also by RBG, Kew (see: http://plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:501912-1 Yes, Pisum sativum is clearly very widely used but recent studies have shown that retaining it (& other names) renders the circumscription of Lathyrus and Vicia problematic. Also, L. oleraceum is not an invalid name.

    Regarding sperm, I’ll stand my ground, they both are/contain male gametes and equivalence in this context is acceptable.

    Best wishes

    1. Dear Dr Spencer,

      Thank you for your robust defence of the nomenclatural matter, and your appreciation of my appraisal of the book. I try to be honest with my book assessments, so if it was ‘generous’ it was because it was well-deserved.

      What I didn’t mention in my item, but which your feedback gives me the opportunity so to do, was the wonderful realisation that we share the same views on John Smith’s bitter and lager(!)

      All the very best to you, and your work!

      Nigel Chaffey

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