Vicky Newham


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Before It’s Too Late by Jane Isaac – a review

Having recently finished and enjoyed The Truth Will Out, I have been looking forward to reading Isaac’s new novel, Before It’s Too Late, a police procedural set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Following an argument with her British boyfriend, Tom, Chinese student Min Li storms out of the pub in a temper and never makes it home. Somewhere along her route, she is abducted and held captive in a dark pit. With only basic provisions, Min Li is at the mercy of her captor.

Part of what makes the book interesting but also harrowing is that the reader gets a first person account from Min Li of her experience in the pit. As she struggles to stay alive, she reflects on her life. Her thoughts turn to her parents and how her boyfriend might be feeling, and she tries to fend off the dawning realisation that she may die. Isaac handles these sections extremely well and it is hard for the reader not to root for Min Li. When a book plot focuses around a kidnap, the writer has to decide whether to have that aspect occur off the page or on. I thought the first person sections were very emotive but they did mean that I knew Min Li was still alive. That said, Isaac has a gift for pulling the reader into the story and involving him/her in what unfolds and there are plenty of surprises.

DI Will Jackman is put in charge of the investigation. With every passing hour, he knows that the chances are receding of finding Min Li alive. I really liked Jackman, and it was refreshing to encounter a detective who isn’t stereotypically alcohol-dependent and lacking in relationship skills. He has challenges of his own, and the readers sees him juggling work, home life and childcare, and trying to come to terms with the personal tragedy which is at the root of these. His character seems human and real and I felt sympathetic towards him as a result. In addition, he comes across as dedicated and capable, and determined to locate the student and find out what the kidnap is motivated by.

In additions to chapters from the viewpoint of Min Li and Jackman, the author also includes ones from the perspective of the captor, and these are simultaneously fascinating and chilling. I found the story extremely interesting, and, as with Isaac’s previous novel, it has a dark plot which taps into contemporary issues in society and possibly real life events. Having recently listened to a few episodes of Serial, Before It’s Too Late reminded me slightly of the real life disappearance of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, USA in 1999. This isn’t a criticism at all and it may be a coincidence, and in any event, I enjoy stories which use a real event as a starting point for something fictionalised. I know a little about Chinese culture from teaching psychology, and it was thought provoking to consider the ways in which the family dynamics affect how Min Lee’s parents in China respond to her disappearance. Their reaction is tradition-bound, and highlights significant cultural differences in family systems, norms and attitudes between western and non-western societies.

Overall, Before It’s Too Late is a compelling read, with a great plot and a rounded, likeable male detective. I look forward to finding out what is next for Jackman.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Island Escape by Kerry Fisher – a review

I really enjoyed Kerry’s first novel, The School Gate Survival Guide. I bought and read this when it was called The Class Ceiling, after Kerry came along to talk to my writing group. It was clear from that book that Kerry’s writing is clever: she puts things across humorously but underneath the funny scenarios and quick exchanges lurk important life issues and questions, and tricky relationship dynamics.

The Island Escape is another cracking read and showcases similar witty writing and well observed characterisation. It revolves around the friendship between long term friends Octavia (who is married to Jonathon) and Roberta (who is married to Scott). The two women are very different characters but both have been married for a long time. Chapters alternate between the two friends and the story is told from both points of view. Roberta’s marriage is on its last legs and, as so often happens, this results in Octavia wondering about her own marriage and reminiscing about the time she spent in Corsica. It was there that she met and fell in love with Xavi.

I adore books which have female friendship as a context, as this can be an intense relationship with many potential ‘rabbit holes’. It is fascinating to consider – through story – how changes in the life of one person so often affect others around them, and the range of feelings that can be prompted when someone close is either struggling or experiences success. The actions of those around us can be contagious, but they can also arouse fear, jealousy and conflict. The tensions and jealousies between Roberta and Octavia are very believable, all the more so as they genuinely care about each other. I also enjoy books which address questions which we all have about our lives, jobs and relationships: is it better to stay put with ‘the devil you know’ or get out and take a risk in the hope of something better? This aspect of the Island Escape is affirming and optimistic. There are never any guarantees but it’s always worth having dreams.

The story gallops along, taking the reader with it. Many sections are funny, with real laugh out loud lines, and other moments are poignant. Highly recommended.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley. Thank you.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent – a review

 

 

The cover of the book includes the quote, ‘A compelling whydunnit’ and I would agree. Its opening line is, ‘I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.’ It’s a clever start to a novel, and one which whisks the reader straight into the heart of the plot, but it is also a challenging one as the suspense has to be created through the ‘unravelling’ of why Oliver did what he did to his wife, Alice, and what his attitude is to his actions.

I found Unravelling Oliver extremely interesting. Chapters are told from the point of view of a number of different characters and all in the first person. We start with Oliver, then Barney (who had been Alice’s boyfriend). I loved Barney. His voice is so distinctive and he genuinely adores Alice and her brother, Eugene. Then we hear from other people who knew Oliver. There is Michael, whose sister, Laura, went out with Oliver at university. It is on a working holiday in Bordeaux which Oliver, Laura and Michael go on where things start to ‘unravel’ for Oliver, and one event leads relentlessly to another.

As the reader learns about Oliver’s upbringing, his developmental trajectory and behaviour are explained. This raises interesting questions about nature and nurture, as it is fascinating to consider whether Oliver was always going to be a psychopath and a liar or whether it took his developmental experiences for this to happen. I found it hard not to dislike Oliver, especially given the book’s opening, and I felt very sad for Laura and Alice. The characters the reader hears from are well portrayed and distinct, and given the multiple viewpoints, I was pleased the chapters were of sufficient length to ‘get into’ each of the characters and what they had to contribute.

As I was reading I did find myself wondering how the book was going to end, and turning over options in my mind. For me, the main pleasures of this book were the writing and the psychology. The author had a clever, unusual turn of phrase, including some lovely Irish expressions, and some of the descriptions and dialogue were wonderful. I adore books which have ‘choice’ as a theme, and which raise the question of how much we have as humans. Why do we each make the choices we do? Why did Barney let Oliver take Alice from him, and why did Alice leave nice, adoring Barney for Oliver? Were those decisions pre-determined, and if so, what by? Or did they choose them? In this regard, I thought the title was clever. Was Oliver always going to unravel or is the reader unravelling him?

If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that, for me, the narrative lacked suspense and jeopardy – but I wonder if this comes partly from the book starting with the reader knowing who the baddie is. The only real questions on the table are why Oliver is the way he is and what happens to him. However, the author may have wanted the book to be like this, and that is fair enough. Unravelling Oliver is still extremely interesting and well written.

My copy of the book was bought and read on kindle.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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SNOWBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson – a review

I was eager to read Snowblind after seeing the author talk about it so inspiringly on a couple of panels at ‘Crimefest’ recently. I bought the book there.

Crime fiction is currently at an interesting stage of development. Its popularity continues to burgeon, new sub-genres are emerging all the time and cross-genre novels – which publishers avoided for a long time – are becoming increasingly common. In addition, new countries are entering the market, including translated works. To me, Snowblind epitomises exactly this sort of exciting, new cross-genre fiction. It is a fusion of Nordic Noir (with landscape, weather and socio-economic issues featuring, and a dark atmosphere) and Golden Age detective fiction, with Christie-esque plotting, characterisation and narrative techniques (a crime at the theatre and a type of locked room mystery).

The protagonist, Ari Thór Arason, a rookie detective, takes a post in the north of Iceland in Siglufjörður, a town which can only be accessed via a mountain tunnel, where the newspapers arrive after midday and where no-one locks their doors because the place is so safe. Ari Thór is determined to get to the bottom of an apparently accidental death of an author at the local theatre. When this death is followed by a brutal and bloody attack on a local woman, Ari Thór has to overcome a number of challenges to solve the crimes, some personal and some professional: his relationship with his girlfriend, Kristin, in Reykjavik, seems to be floundering and he is confused about it; the townsfolk are suspicious of him for being from ‘down south’ and for having studied theology; he struggles to cope with the snow and the isolation of the remote location and the gossiping nature of a remote, close knit community. Personally, I love novels where protagonists have a number of obstacles to overcome and the ‘outsider’ theme hits the spot for me: psychologically, interesting dynamics often ensue.

The plotting is intricate and has many ‘Christie’ hallmarks, as you might expect from the man who has translated fourteen of her novels into Icelandic. Jónasson sets up a number of possible culprits and I had no idea ‘who dunnit’. The final denouement is fascinating and satisfying.

I found Snowblind a relaxing, gentle read. It isn’t ‘noir’ in the sense of American Noir. Nor is it like the Scandi Noir of Larsson or Nesbo (in my opinion). The violence and fast pace of Larsson and Nesbo are tempered in Snowblind by the Golden Age influences. I particularly enjoyed the labyrinthine plotting and the landscape descriptions, and the latter serve to create a relentlessly bleak and oppressive setting. I found the main character, Ari Thór, intriguing. Various questions are posed about him. Why has he started and stopped so many things in his life? What is going to happen with Kristin and how is he able to leave her so easily? How has the death of his parents affected him? As Snowblind is part of a series, I look forward to finding out more about him in the next instalment.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Reflections on Crimefest 2015

New and old author crushes and a welcome shift in attitude.

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In the small hours of Thursday morning I wondered if I would get to Crimefest. With a poorly dog and neighbour noise, I had got half an hour of sleep just before the alarm went off at 6 a.m. But I grabbed another two hours’ kip, and then zipped down the M4 in the rain, spray and mist in four hours. And ta da! I was beamed up into a glorious bubble of crime fiction for three days.

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As I approached the Bristol Marriott Royal on Thursday afternoon, I had that lovely feeling you get when you return to a place where you’ve had wonderful experiences in the past. Crimefest 2013 was my first crime fiction event. I went straight into the Nordic Noir panel this year. This was the first time I had seen Craig Robertson (who is hilarious). The banter between Craig and Quentin Bates, the moderator, was delightful. My first author crush was Kati Hiekkapelto, whose book, The Hummingbird, sounds A-M-AAA-ZING, and I dashed off to buy her book as soon as the panel finished.

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The panel on Sub-genres was fascinating, with each author explaining why they chose their specific sub-genre. Simon Toyne, who has to be one of the best dressed men in crime fiction, was on this one. I have seen him before and he is always extremely funny. The panelists all mentioned that they had set themselves deadlines when they started writing, to get a book finished or published. Emma Kavanagh’s background as a psychologist interests me and I love the way she describes her route to publication.

On Friday I nipped along to the Debut Author panel at 9 a.m. These are my favourite slots at writing events as I find it so interesting to hear about the authors’ backgrounds, book plots and writing journeys. Nursing my Kati crush, I acquired another one on Ragnar Jonassen, and immediately bought Snowblind – but was too embarrassed to get it signed so I got Kati to sign hers instead, while I burbled away like an idiot about how I was also a teacher and was interested in …. (cringe, shuddup Vicky).

The rest of Friday involved the Crime Writing Day as part of the Flashbang competition shortlist. The first session was with the hugely inspiring Joanna Penn. I’ve met Jo before and her energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She honestly makes you feel that you can achieve whatever you want.

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What I took from this session more than anything was that your definition of success should determine the choices you make regarding the books you write and how you publish them. I agree with this 100%. After this we had a lively session with two agents and two editors. Something I noticed over the three day event is that what I want for my writing hasn’t changed since 2011, which is when I decided to write crime novels ‘seriously’. There are various options which I am considering but my goal is still to write books which interest me and which others will enjoy. And I still would like agent representation and a traditional publishing deal.

I was sad to miss both of Stav Sherez’s panels on Friday, and the one on Private Investigators. And the one on Writing the Other. But the Crime Writing Day was brilliant and at the end of it Zoe Sharp and Sarah Hilary announced the winners of the Flashbang competition. I’d had two pieces longlisted and one shortlisted, and so I was simply thrilled to have been included. ‘Mercy’ won third prize which made me very happy as the piece was inspired by memories of my lovely father, who, sadly, suffered a great deal before he died. Unfortunately everyone probably now thinks that I murdered him. I didn’t, Officer, honestly.

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During the weekend I realised how many people I’ve got to know in the crime fiction world. Some I’d met before, and some I hadn’t but know from social media. It wasn’t a surprise for me to know that what I want for my own writing hasn’t changed but it was reassuring to have it confirmed. I did, however, realise how much more confident I feel in what I want to do and how I am trying to do it. 2014 was a weird year for me. It was challenging on a personal and financial level, and completing my MA was wonderful but learning to write poetry, drama and short stories meant that I had to set aside my novel in order to concentrate. Starting a new novel for my dissertation was the icing on the cake for me, as this was – and is – the novel I’ve wanted to write since I started teaching in East London. And this is the novel I want to complete and get out to agents and editors. I mention this because I am aware of vague feelings on occasions that I got left behind in 2014. But I didn’t. I was just doing Other Stuff. I still can’t write a sestina for toffee, though!

I was aware of another shift at Crimefest this year. I took a quarter of the notes I did in 2013 and 2014. This does mean that I will forget a lot of what was said but it made things more enjoyable and relaxing. It is easy to think that authors on the panels have the key to successful publishing, that they know something I don’t, and that I have to go to every single panel and learn as much as I can. And part of me does want to do that. But, as mentioned above, I am also aware of feeling much more confident now. I have completed a novel. I can do it again with this current one … and I will. But I have to take it a scene at a time, a day at a time, rein in my impatience and excitement, and get to the end. I’ve learnt a load of stuff over the last few years, from books and from my course. Now I just want to get my bum on the seat and apply it. I know that I draft fast but it’s the rewriting which is essential for me, and this takes me aaaaaages. But I have my ruthless editor and writing companion, and she does the necessary when something is rubbish.

Saturday’s panels included the Debut Authors, then Entertainment or Message, then Brains or Brawn with Zoe Sharp and some chap called Lee Child. Clutching my LC author crush, I secured a front row seat – result! – and this was a terrific panel. I’ve seen Lee at events before and he is always generous, interesting and good value. Tom Harper is new to me, and Yrsa and Chris Ewan are writers I admire.

Sadly, there were a few people I wanted to say ‘hello’ to over the weekend but either didn’t see or it wasn’t the right time. I still find going up to people excruciatingly embarrassing and no-one ever believes me when I say that I am a) extremely shy and b) a classic introvert. To make matters worse, given that my contact lenses gave me a headache, I took them out and then couldn’t see more than fuzzy outlines and had to ‘peer’ at people, aware that I resembled my mother when she was choosing cheese in Waitrose. Attractive! Note to self: get bloody glasses sorted, woman.

Highlights of Crimefest 2015 for me were: people’s lovely comments about my flash fiction pieces; having a chat with Stav about writing; meeting Charlotte and Debs and rummaging through their book purchases; feeling much more confident about my own writing; catching up with Janet O’Kane, Dave Sivers and Alison Gray; and discovering new authors and books. Oh and the sofa outside the ladies loo at the Marriott which I intend to steal next year.

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Thank you to everyone involved. See you next year. And don’t forget: your definition of success should determine the choices you make – JFP.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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A Thousand Voices for Compassion #1000Speak

This blogpost is part of the international initiative, using #1000Speak on Twitter. It aims to raise awareness of, and promote, compassion, kindness and non-judgementalism as a ‘response’ in life. With so much depressing content in the news, it struck me as a really neat idea.

I wanted to say a little about how Buddhism views compassion. According to the teachings of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, compassion is seen as one of two qualities which are needed to achieve enlightenment. The other is wisdom. The two things work together: compassion arises from wisdom, and wisdom from compassion. For most of us, enlightenment is probably not a life goal. It isn’t for me. But Buddhist teachings are relevant to anyone who is interested in living a life based on kindness and compassion.

Most dictionaries define compassion as the sympathetic awareness of the suffering of another person combined with the desire to alleviate that suffering. Buddhism offers a similar definition but would add a few ideas which I think are important.

The Buddha taught that the most appropriate response to suffering is compassion. It is interesting – and not always pleasant – to reflect on whether in our own responses, this is always, sometimes or never the case. Are we selectively compassionate? To some people but not others? Only when we feel like it? Perhaps compassion is a useful response in all situations, not just those involving suffering. The suggestion is that the more conscious we are of our habitual responses in life – emotionally and behaviourally – the more likely we are to modify them.

In October I went on a meditation retreat in North Wales. The focus of the retreat was on four meditation practices which are all based around the ideas of kindness and compassion. In this blogpost I am going to say a little about the quality which each practice focuses on. This is because each one introduces us to aspects of life which, it is suggested, we might be ignoring or turning away from. At their most basic, they show some of the ways in which we can be kind to each other. Accordingly, they fit in perfectly with the #1000Speak theme.

The four meditation practices focus on the development of: kindness; compassion; sympathetic joy; equanimity.

1. Kindness

This involves wishing for the happiness of others independent from our personal interest. We are encouraged to develop and show kindness to ourselves – something which we may find challenging or think is selfish. We are encouraged to wish our friends happiness, our acquaintances and complete strangers, and those we find difficult or who have hurt us.

Most of the people around us are strangers and acquaintances. The idea is that at a human level we are all the same. We all have similar thoughts and feelings and desires. To wish the best to someone we don’t know much, if at all, acknowledges our common humanity. Doing the same to someone who has hurt us in some way is extremely powerful and can be very liberating. It isn’t saying that what the person did was okay. It is saying, I know you are suffering about what happened, as am I, and I wish you health and happiness. It is, of course, important to be kind with ourselves if we are not ready to wish a particular person well.

Sometimes wishing another person well may involve loss. They may be leaving us, emotionally or geographically. It is an example of altruism and love to (genuinely) wish another person well when it is at the expense of our own wants and wishes.

A while ago my mother, from whom I had been estranged for many years, rang me out of the blue to announce that she wanted to die. This phone call was the most difficult one I’ve ever had with anyone in my life – and I had to swallow all my feelings and wish her well, and whatever she wanted for herself. She was dead a couple of days later. I reckon if I can do it with her, I can do it with anyone.

2. Compassion

This involves a kind and loving response to the suffering of others and results in the desire to alleviate the suffering by taking action to do things which need to be done. Compassion requires sensitivity and strength.

It can be harder to show compassion than kindness. People often find the suffering of others difficult to handle. It can prompt a number of feelings such as fear, irritation, pain and confusion. Sometimes it is worth getting to know these emotions. If suffering creates fear or irritation – why is that?

We are advised to guard against qualities and attitudes which might resemble aspects of compassion but which are actually very different. These are ‘horrified anxiety’ (which is where the emotion experienced results in a dramatic distancing) and ‘sentimental pity’ (which is where the response may be exaggerated but lack real care or commitment to help). Both of these lack warmth and result from the person being more concerned with his own discomfort than the person who is suffering. At the other end of the spectrum are the people who pretend they haven’t seen someone struggling.

The thing about suffering is that it’s relative. We are all struggling with things in life. When we are tired, or struggling ourselves, it is easy to judge the suffering of others. It is easy to be impatient with them. To tell them how much they have to be happy about. Or how others have it worse. But you can’t shame a person into all of a sudden not suffering. The suffering of another person isn’t about you, or me or anyone other than that person.

And it isn’t always obvious.

3. Sympathetic joy

This is rejoicing in the happiness and good fortune of others. In this situation, if the person has something which we would also like, our response can often be resentment and envy. It can include judgements about whether the good fortune is thought to be ‘deserved’ or ‘fair’.

However, the joy of others is enriching. Our own potential for true happiness is not under threat because another person is happy. In truth, the more we wish happiness for others and tune into it, the more likely we are to be happy.

We can sometimes experience ‘vicarious satisfaction’ instead of sympathetic joy. This is where we aren’t actually pleased for the other person but intellectually celebrate it from a distance. Sometimes there is the self-satisfaction of feeling that we have contributed to the other person’s successes, and perhaps deserve some credit. Alternatively ‘hero worship’ can occur in the face of another’s success. Another response – often resulting from envy or resentment – is to ignore the success or happiness, to pretend not to have noticed, as if denying it will somehow make it not be real.

Where responses arise which do not involve sympathetic joy, it’s important to have compassion for ourselves too. Envy and resentment are natural feelings. We all feel them, whether we like to admit it or not. But they are feelings which arise in response to the thoughts we have about our own lives. The trick is to acknowledge them, to sit with them, to bring compassion to them. And often something more loving emerges.

4. Equanimity

This involves having positive emotion to all people equally, in other words, feeling equally strongly towards everyone. Equanimity requires the attitudes of love and kindness referred to above, the compassion for the suffering of others, and the joy at their good fortune. In reality we are often kinder to people we know and like. It is more challenging to be equally kind to strangers, to those we do not like and to those who have hurt us or made us angry.

I mentioned above that Buddhism adds to dictionary definitions of compassion. The two main ways in which it does this are by suggesting that compassion should be universal, that is, shown to all people equally, and without any desire for selfish gain.

What I like about these four practices, and the qualities they aim to develop, is that they operate at the level of the heart and not the mind. It is the mind which judges, which thinks unkind thoughts, which discriminates. It is the mind which soaks up the stories we are told when we are growing up, about who we are and how life will treat us. It is the mind which internalises and repeats critical voices.

Do I find all of this easy? OhmygoodnessIwish. Does understanding how some of it works mean I’ve got it sussed? Unfortunately, it’s only the beginning. And is why I go on intense meditation retreats.

Meditation can show us ways to ‘get out of’ the mind into the body and the heart so that we have a place to rest and breathe – and to decide who we want to be and how we want to behave. Then, ‘off the cushion’, it can become easier to respond compassionately to things that happen rather than lurching into a reaction based on judgements and assumptions. However, you don’t need to be interested in Buddhism or meditation to see how important and helpful kindness and compassion are.

Thanks so much for reading my blogpost. Do leave comments or questions if you found it interesting, and please forward it on for others to read. I look forward to reading what other people have written.

(For anyone wanting to look the meditation practices up, they are the Brahma Viharas)

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Vicky Newham © 2015. All rights reserved.


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Introduction to Forensic Science course

Over the last six weeks I’ve been doing this free course https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/introduction-to-forensic-science run by FutureLearn and the University of Strathclyde. I have been interested in forensic science well before I started writing crime novels, and used to snaffle text books at school to see what the GCSE module covered.

I have been extremely impressed from the start by the content quality and supporting materials of this course. The videos are fabulous, and a transcript is provided of each one. These can be downloaded and either saved or printed, along with all of the other PDFs. For a free course, I really am staggered at how brilliant it is. I’ve mentioned it to quite a few people but honestly cannot recommend it highly enough if you are writing a police procedural or forensically orientated thingy. Or even if you aren’t – and are just interested in forensic science.

Initially I took notes on each video and then realised that it was less time consuming to print out the PDFs and then highlight and annotate them as I watched each video. Many of them I need to go back over as some are extremely detailed.

I thought it might be useful to outline what the six weeks cover. I am doing this now so that you can sign up for the next time the course runs. That said, I don’t think numbers are limited as there is no feedback or marking, so I think that FutureLearn allow an unlimited number of people to enrol – and without implications for the students. Hurrah.

In addition to videos, there are: case study material; supporting articles and reference materials; Google hangout discussions; and DIY opportunities to examine your own finger marks and foot prints. Hours of fun.

Some sections are heavy on the science. I really enjoyed these parts but you can always go for the broad brush approach if science isn’t your thing. The final week includes quite a bit on the philosophy of science, Popper & Kuhn etc., which I also enjoyed as it comes into psychology.

This is what each week covers:

Week 1 – what is forensic science and crime scene investigation? This includes a case study of an actual crime. How crime scenes are controlled, recorded, recovered and reconstructed. Who does what?

Week 2 – fingerprints and finger marks. Detection, enhancement, limitations. Reference back to the case study.

Week 3 – blood pattern analysis and DNA. Semen. Databases. Limitations. (Fairly detailed) Reference back to the case study.

Week 4 – footwear and tool mark evidence. Different types of firearm. Tyre marks.

Week 5 – drugs of abuse. Types of drugs. Natural. Semi-synthetic. Synthetic drugs. Identification. The law. Drug profiling. The case study.

Week 6 – more on the status of forensic science. Uses, limitations, potential and what science is. Reference back to the case study. The evidence. The trial.

The course blurb suggests that you can cover the work in three hours a week. There is a lot to take in each week, so I didn’t find that I could do the whole three hours in one go but their guide probably isn’t far off.

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Vicky Newham © 2015