The featured image shows “Father of Forensics” Sir Bernard Spilsbury setting up a makeshift lab to examine the remains of an early 20th-century murder victim. (East Sussex County Libraries, under Creative Commons license)
Viva Las Vegas! Sin City, the city of Lost Wages, Glitter Gulch.
Though I have visited Vegas many times, obligated to as a reporter covering the consumer electronics industry back in the nineties, my conflicted relationship and perception of the city largely are products of CBS TV’s long-running CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The formulaic procedural is one of my (many) guilty pleasures, which is only fitting given the role of Vegas in the drama. The city is very much a principal character, and if you’ve seen even one episode, you know what I mean.
As each episode opens, the city’s innocence (for Vegas, a relative term) and vulnerability are indexed by a flyover that takes in the Strip’s night-lit luster and presents this nightscape as a gleaming ecosystem about to confront a nasty human virus: the serial killer. The narrative quickly hits the streets to let us in on the work of a dedicated team of disciplined scientists who methodically collect, identify, and analyze otherwise hidden matter that leads law enforcement, seemingly inevitably, to the killer. As a virus, this (usually male) predator is isolated, contained, and extracted from the urban ecosystem to set up the closing scene – another flyover, this one symbolizing and punctuating the city’s restoration to gleaming, glittering spectacle. All is (again) well. If only it were that simple. But it is this imagery that piqued my interest in portrayals of crime and criminal forensics on television, which led to my article in the Fall 2018 issue of Journalism History, “The CSI Imaginary: British Newspaper Coverage of the Beginnings of Modern Criminal Forensics and ‘Trace’ Evidence.”
Research inspiration: The serial killer as “virus”
The recurring trope of criminal “virus” has haunted me for years, so disconnected as it is from the ways crime typically occurs, and so completely divorced from the socio-economic causes of crime as they are confronted by our cities. These simplistic portrayals falsely differentiate the criminal element from the social organism of the body politic that spawned it. For the latter, and for unparalleled verisimilitude, try HBO’s The Wire, still the best television I have ever seen and the only series I have ever binge-watched. Scout’s honor.
In fact, I think my physic demands a steady regimen of British crime staples such as Vera, Endeavour, George Gently, Prime Suspect, Hinterland, Shetland, and my all-time favorite, Inspector Morse, to name a precious few. These franchises all are more or less procedurals and, thus, formulaic. That is part of their charm. I also do the daily New York Times crossword (Thursdays are the best). As English writer P. D. James described it, the murder mystery is “more about the restoration of order out of disorder, far more about the application of human intelligence to a puzzle,” than it is about catching a killer.
Central in all of these shows, to this genre, is, of course, the crime scene, the substantive entity “invariably portrayed as a fragile, temporal space quarantined by police caution tape and entered into by investigators wearing head-to-foot protective suits meant to prevent contamination and promote preservation of a fast-degrading evidentiary trail,” as I describe it in the article. I teach Visual Rhetoric and, therefore, among other things signs, symbols, semiotics, and collective memory. The crime scene is a visually, dizzyingly symbolic world, one that indexes the customs and norms of patient, dispassionate evidence retrieval and of a practiced choreography.
Think of how many of these depictions in TV dramas you perhaps have seen in which the principals speak only a handful of practiced words, if any at all: “Time of death?” “Cause?” “I’ll know more after the post-mortem.” We viewers uncritically accept this symbolic representation, overlooking how densely symbolic the crime scene is and, therefore, how demanding it is in terms of interpretation. Inspiring my research, I was fascinated by the notion that the contemporary crime scene is a social construction that has resulted from human interventions. How? From where? How were these conventions normalized, socialized, ratified? I wanted to find out.
Finding a research roadmap
With all of these ideas and questions buzzing around in my brain, I stumbled upon Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton’s important history of the medical and scientific knowledge-making practices of English CSI: Murder and the Making of English CSI. This book, in particular one of its chapters on newspaper coverage of crime scenes, crystallized for me how to at least begin apprehending some answers, which was to read British newspapers from the late 1800s to the early 1930s and identify the role that these newspapers played in co-producing and normalizing CSI’s conventions that are of such intense public and cultural interest today. Burney and Pemberton did more than inspire the research; they provided the basic roadmap for the project, and they identified most of the newspaper sources I would end up reading and using. I had been collecting materials on this general topic for several years, but in Murder and the Making of English CSI I saw how in a journal-length article something meaningful could be said about how, out of the crime fiction- and crime reporting-filled pages of these early British newspapers, some of the defining characteristics of the modern day crime scene emerged.
As a cultural as well as historical project, the article is of course limited in what it can definitively say about these now taken-for-granted conventions. Straight lines of causality are rare anywhere, but especially in the realms of the symbolic. The huge strides that have been made digitizing old newspapers, archiving them, and making them search-friendly made the project possible. With huge help from my research assistant, Allie Crain, most of the findings came from the British Newspaper Archive operated in partnership with The British Library. And I was surprised at how much better the Google Newspaper Archive has become, even in the last few years. Allie and I used this archive to round out the reservoir of articles and crime coverage.
What research agenda?
Allie and I collaborated on the CSI project simultaneously with work on two others – an article upcoming in Visual Communication Quarterly that uses Savannah’s single, solitary slavery monument to interrogate the Georgia city’s collective memory (“Monumental Discord: Savannah’s Remembering (and Forgetting) of Its Enslaved”); and a book chapter on the rhetorical strategies of symbolic patriotism as enacted by professional sports leagues. So, if asked how the CSI project fits into my research agenda, I would answer, as idiosyncratically as everything else. But there is a logic. Common to these projects, as well to a book project on Shakespeare’s imagining of England, are examinations of collective memory, negotiated symbolic meaning, spectacle, and absence.
Pan back to helicopter flyover and cue theme music.