Saturday, October 19, 2013

Perspective ("The Inheritor's Powder" by Sandra Hempel)

Sometimes you think of a book as important, not because it's groundbreaking or a bestseller or even an entertaining read, but because it reminds you just how fortunate you are to be living today rather than, say, six or seven generations ago. For instance, The Inheritor's Powder by Sandra Hempel has a pretty straightforward premise:  it's the story of a farming family in 19th century England who are poisoned, leaving many of them violently ill and killing the elderly patriarch, and the search for a culprit using a new and untested area of science and criminal justice that will eventually become known as forensic science.

Beneath this story, however, is where we find the book's true relevance. In order to not only track down the poisoner but also convict him or her in a court of law, investigators and scientists alike had to deal with corrupt or incompetent officials, outdated methods of evidence-gathering, sloppy detective work, and a court system that still allowed members of the jury to serve while drunk...a prospect made all the more horrifying by the knowledge that inquests and trials were sometimes held at the local pub. On top of all this, the poison that was suspected of being used in this case--arsenic--was difficult to test for, and had it not been for the ragtag group of academics and policemen honored by Hempel herein, an accurate test would not have appeared for some time, allowing countless more murderers to walk free and strike again. (And, as Hempel points out towards the book's close, the setbacks that come with developing a revolutionary new procedure often resulted in criminals walking free, though that was also sometimes due to a judicial system with little interest in following its own procedures.)

In reading Hempel's book, you are struck time and again with just how primitive the entire system was only 160 years ago--only a few decades after our own country, brand new in the world, wrote itself a Constitution guaranteeing judicial practices like the right to due process, a trail by jury, and a safeguard against self-incrimination.* The Inheritor's Powder is filled with stories of detectives getting drunk on the job, losing evidence, or even passing it around to friends at a pub to be contaminated or destroyed; coroners, untrained in even the most basic aspects of anatomy, who offer shoulder shrugs when called to the witness stand; judges who speed through five trials a day, just for the sake of appearing expedient; and so on. To us, living in a world where trials are usually tedious and dull--a far cry from how they're depicted in film and television--these anecdotes are downright appalling.

What's worse, the vast majority of those living in 19th century England saw little issue with the fraudulent science, slipshod criminal justice system, and hack police work of the day--to them, it was their normal--and only when a few small but influential figures raised their voice did public opinion and social ideas begin to change, albeit slowly. Which makes Hempel's book significant, if for no other reason to emphasize the forgotten roles of those very influential few, but it also makes those revelations a little worrying. After all, if so much of science, law, and criminal justice has changed in just a century and a half--their idea of normal now seen as mind-boggling incompetence and tragedy--what will writers think of us two hundred years from now? What aspects of our own society will future Sandra Hempels look back on with disbelief, derision, even scorn? How will we--supposedly advanced, supposedly progressive, unstoppably self-assured--be written about after a half-dozen or so generations have passed?

What's more, the issues that will most likely doom us in those books--our swelling prison-industrial complex, a prison population disgustingly imbalanced along racial and socioeconimics lines**, racial profiling, the entertainmentization of trials via 24/7 news networks--are almost wholly ignored by those in a position to change them, if not outright promoted by them, which is not unlike England more than 150 years ago. We hope, in reading these stories from the past, that our own James Marsh or Alfred Swaine Taylor will emerge to right these wrongs. For the sake of our future. 

*Hempel's book focuses entirely on forensic science in England. For the story of forensic science's origins in the United States, see Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook, an excellent read.

**See Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow...and once you see it, pick it up and read it.