Book review and competition to win a copy of sciblogs colleague Anna Sandiford’s book Expert Witness.

Win a copy

(I’m keeping this open until Sunday midnight; it’s still open.)

We’re giving away a copy of sciblogs writer Anna Sandiford’s book Expert Witness to a lucky reader.

In it she describes what forensic science is really like, and shares tales from the forensic front-line. The book is reviewed below.

To be in to win, add a comment after the review giving one question you would ask if you met a forensic scientist.

The winner will be chosen in the first instance by judging the questions offered. If none appeal, the winner will be chosen randomly from those that enter, favouring those that offered a question. (If you can’t think of a question, enter anyway.)

Don’t include your address – the winner will be contacted using the email address you supply to add your entry comment.

Book review

David Bain was convicted of murdering his family, his mother, father, sisters and brother. The introductions are done, Expert Witness opens with an encounter with Mr Bain in a room with the door wedged shut with a chair,

I’m standing in a large, old, unfurnished room with a partially carpeted concrete floor and only one exit. A convicted murderer stands between me and the exit.

Right from the start you know you’re in for a good ride.


Sandiford’s style is chatty and easy-going. The humour (British?) comes through, in some chapters more than others as suits their content.

Before starting into forensic science or her encounter with David Bain, the author introduces herself. The first sentence lays out the author’s aim,

This book is about my job and the casework in which I have been involved.

She elaborates further on page 48,

I want to give you an indication of how forensic science is applied in a practical sense and an idea of what the job entails.

Forensic science suffers from the ‘CSI effect’, as she explains. Her book offers us a personal tour forensic science as it really is.

When it comes down to it, almost all of us have some interest in forensic science; we encounter aspects of in the media every week. Interest in Expert Witness shouldn’t be limited to just fans of crime fiction or viewers of TV series like Bones or CSI (which she remarks on in the book), but also for those who simply would like to learn more about a well-known but not especially well-understood activity.

Sandiford’s intended audience are adults in ‘the general public’ and her text fits this aim well. This isn’t textbook-ish. The style is more something you might read in an in-depth magazine article. It sheds light on her profession in an easy way–without getting bogged down in minutiae–telling us how forensic science happens in the real world, not the fancy of TV drama.

The publisher and/or cover designer have listed on the front cover several well-known cases. These cases are certainly mentioned in the book, and provide interesting insights to these cases, but it’s not about them – it’s about Sandiford’s work. (It’s a minor quibble, and not about of the author’s work, but I would have wished the publisher/cover designer opted to present the book in a more reflective light.)

Expert Witness takes readers on a tour of how the author came to forensic science via geology,[1] what forensic science is (it’s not quite what most people think), her casework and the impact of ‘the CSI effect’.[2]

She has the advantage of having worked in several countries, England, Wales, Scotland and New Zealand. Comparing the different nations she gives us insight into how forensic science differs in the different nations and how it fits in with the wider legal scene.

Her main lines of casework–drink-driving and drug-related cases and analyses of trace materials, pollen analysis, footwear and footprints–are each highlighted in a chapter.

The whole thing has stories from personal experiences or odd-ball cases woven throughout, illustrating the aspects of the theme of each chapter, along with diversions such as comparing features of different court buildings (more intriguing that it sound here) or a chapter devoted to cryptic requests for assistance by police staff. There is an excellent chapter (The pieman and the circus) devoted to a particularly quirky rural case that sounds straight out of a British crime drama. (Midsomer Murders comes to mind.)

Sandiford strikes you as a good observer, it serves the book well. In the aforementioned chapter, in one incident witnessed personally the girlfriend of a squabbling family member specifically kicks her partner in the left buttock, not generally in the backside.

Closing the book is her time with the David Bain retrial, a major media event in New Zealand. As she recounts, ’it was like opening a door and walking into the eye of a hurricane.’ New Zealanders in particular will appreciate the inside view on her role in this retrial.

While intended for the general public, scientists will enjoy the anecdotes and accounts of working in a non-academic area of science, one most of us have little knowledge of.[3]

I like books that give insights or make you think, better still both. One thing I learnt was how an important part of her work was science communication. It seems so obvious in hindsight I feel silly to say it here, but you don’t at first think of an expert witness as a science communicator. Another discussion that particularly appealed to me was the thorny question of testing the databases used in DNA testing. I’m sure readers will find their own insights. As I was saying earlier, forensic science may be well-known, but it’s not well understood.

I’m probably going to embarrass by closing with this, but… one word features enough that it caught my attention.


If I ever have the pleasure of hosting her company, I sincerely hope I can offer a cuppa that meets her critical standards…

Book details

Title: Expert Witness

Author: Dr. Anna Sandiford, Director of The Forensic Group.

ISBN: 978 1 86950 875 3

Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers, New Zealand, Ltd.

Details: 266 pages, including About the Author (5 pages) andReferences (5 pages).

Availability: On-line sellers and widely available in New Zealand book stores (in all of those I have checked).

The prologue and the opening portion of chapter one are available on-line (PDF file).


My science writing colleagues here at sciblogs will be delighted to know that sciblogs gets a plug early on in the piece (page 46).

1. Those thinking of science careers outside of academia might take note.

2. At one point she offers lists of programmes that different professions shout at. She’d didn’t offer what biologists might shout at; readers are welcome to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

3. As a scientist, there are points I would have liked more detail but that’s a different book, for a different audience.

Other articles on Code for life:

Book review – The Poisoner’s Handbook

Take a summer studentship in Dunedin, New Zealand

On alternatives to academic careers and “letting go”

Curiouser and curiouser (history of science & research topics)

The worm from the deep! and other stories