Friday, July 20, 2012

Forensic Linguistics - What?

I picked up my New Yorker magazine this week and browsed the table of contents. Whoa! An article from the "Department of Linguistics" titled "Words on Trial." Really? (Note: you might have to be a subscriber to read the whole article.)

How cool is that? Solving crimes with linguistics. But wait, that's what my alter-ego's first mystery revolves around! Tace Baker's Speaking of Murder will be out from Barking Rain Press on September 18. It features a Quaker linguistics professor who...well, let's just quote her web site

"The murder of a talented student at a small New England college thrusts linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau into the search for the killer. Lauren is a determined Quaker with an ear for accents. Her investigation exposes small town intrigues, academic blackmail and a clandestine drug cartel that now has its sights set on her."

So I drilled deeper into the article. I knew this from prior research, but it was cool to be reminded of how linguists can solve crimes by analyzing consistent patterns in text messages, voice mail message, or written notes. 

For example, Professor Robert Leonard matched certain elements in the emails of an accused murderer with the text scrawled on the wall at the murder scene. Things like using "U" for "you," which is commonly seen in text messages but not in emails, and misplaced apostrophes in words like "doesnt'" and "cant'." (Oh, be still for a moment, you Pet Peevers, you...) This case had no physical evidence, and the accused was condemned to three life terms in prison based on the forensic linguistic evidence.

I encourage you to read the entire well-researched and well-written article. It's given me more than one idea for Book Three in Tace Baker's Speaking of Mystery series. In Speaking of Murder, Lauren Rousseau uses spoken accents, both domestic and foreign, to identify and eliminate suspects. But she's fully capable of doing text analysis or of determining, as Leonard did, that the suspect used contractions only in negative statement ("I can't") but not in positive ones ("I am"), evidence that resulted in conviction. 

Have you read mysteries solved by a linguist or investigator with linguistic prowess? Or heard of crimes with language-related evidence?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Thoughts of Murder and Mayhem

I'm immersed in a whirlwind of selling a house and renting an apartment while we find the right next house to buy. The gale force slams me with decisions about what to shed, what minimal possessions to bring, and what to store. The relocation storm also forces me to make sure precious items are packed with care. How do I cushion the stone Buddha in the garden so  he isn't chipped by moving from here to there and then to where I want him to land? Will my mother's lovely china really survive the move?

Of course, being a crime writer, the possibilities for murderous mayhem alert me at every turn. What if someone rented one of those temporary storage containers, as we have, and the first item she carried in was a body in a cedar chest? She might then fill the pod with the rest of their boxes of books, her fine china, her garden statuary, her momentarily excess bookshelves, the extra couch. 

The pod gets carted off to the warehouse, which is temperature and humidity controlled. No one notices. 

You get the picture. But how, you might ask, did the victim meet his or her demise?

I recently ordered Dr. D.P. Lyle's amazing resource, Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers

Ooh. Ooh! Dr. Lyle regularly blogs answering these kinds of questions and I don't always make time to read his posts. (He also writes the Dub Walker thrillers and the Samantha Cody series.) But having Murder and Mayhem on my desk makes it hard to concentrate on anything else. A brief sample from the table of contents:

  • Does alcohol intake prevent death from freezing?
  • What structures must be injured to make a stab wound in the back lethal?
  • Can a bee sting kit be altered to result in the death of the user?
You see what I mean. I'd like to take a couple of vacation days just to read this book cover to cover. In lieu of that, what's your favorite nefarious and unusual way to kill off a (fictional) victim? Have you perused Dr. Lyle's books?