Liz Porter: Author of Cold Case Files

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image-lizporter200Liz Porter is the author of Cold Case Files, an account of how cold cases from Australia, the UK and the US have been solved using new science and techniques. She is also the author of Written on the Skin, which was the joint winner of the 2007 Ned Kelly award for best true crime book.

Porter began her career as a journalist in Hong Kong, later working in Sydney, London and Stuttgart before returning to Melbourne to work as a feature writer for the Age. Her books focus on true crime stories and the science involved in solving them. In 1995 she published a novel, Unnatural Order.

Cold Case Files looks into the mystery of a 12-year-old murder, how DNA was extracted from a 1973 crime scene, and the mysterious death of an eight-year-old Egyptian mummy.

Click play to listen. Running time: 34.44

Cold case files

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability


Valerie
Liz, thanks for joining us today.

Liz
It’s a pleasure.

Valerie
Tell us about your latest book called Cold Case Files.

Liz
Well, my latest book is a compilation of 18 different cases that were mysteries that were solved at some point by forensic science. They’re not all crimes, I hasten to add, one involves the death of a child mummy, a forensic Egyptologist looks at the head of the mummy, in fact that’s all that was left, all of these years later, calls in a forensic dentist to look at the jaw, and she comes to the conclusion that this unfortunate child most probably died as a result of an orthodontic operation to remove extra teeth.

The other non-crime one involves the work of an art specialist who consults on what they call ‘questionable paintings’, and the third one is a forensic, a musician who trained a forensic document examiner because he wants to look at the work of Bach, specifically the Cello Suites, to establish his theory that Bach’s second wife composed the Cello Suites, and didn’t just copy them out.

Valerie
Right, so this interest in forensics has been going for awhile for you because in 2007 you won the Ned Kelly award for Written on the Skin, which is also based around the art and science of forensics. Why the interest? Why are you so interested in writing about forensics, and in particular crime as well, even though some of those things aren’t crime?

Liz
Yes, and the rest of the cases in the book are murders and robberies, I hasten to add too, yes.

Look, it came about firstly through writing about forensic science as a journalist for the Sunday Age, and that interest came about from watching shows like Silent Witness, or McCallum, in which John Hannah played a forensic pathologist.

I was curious to know what was it really like. So I went out to the Victoria Institute of Forensic Medicine and I spent a few days there and wrote an article for our Sunday Life magazine, which was in those days a more serious newsy magazine about the work of the Institute. That then lead me to the police forensic center, because I was curious to see what they were up to.

Then I wrote a piece about a particular case where a fire and bomb blast examiner was the crucial person in the conviction of a man for the murder of his child, and the attempted murder of his wife. I wrote that up for Sunday Age. It was one of those cases where the forensic scientists’ evidence was crucial, it was the crucial proof to the jury that this particular fire was not an accident, as the husband had suggested, but it was in fact a deliberated fire.

In usual cases the forensic evidence is only part of the breadth of evidence, it’s there to support what police usually know other ways, but in this case, the forensic evidence is crucial, and what happens in television crime, but less often in real life.

After I wrote that, Pan Macmillan actually contacted me and said, “What an extraordinary case, would you have others like that?” And I said, “Well, I probably would,” because by this stage, having done the story for the Victoria Institute of Forensic Medicine, I already had quite a few contacts in that area. So, I thought, “I’ll just probably ring everybody I know, and ask them to give me their best cases, and tell me about other people who might have other areas of forensic expertise,” and I was confident that I could get together a book like that. And, that’s what happened with Written on the Skin.

Valerie
And it’s fascinating reading, isn’t it, because these are real, and it’s all happening, it’s all happening in our lives every day. When you’re researching it though, because it is real, it’s not from your imagination, it’s not fiction, is it difficult? Is it something that is quite confronting, or can you put a distance to it?

Liz
Well, what I find, the difficulties for me are not in the graphic nature sometimes of the material. I don’t know if I’ve just become immune to that. I remember when I was researching Written on the Skin, one of my chapters involved the work of a forensic etymologist. The forensic etymologist looks at the progression of insects that colonize a dead body, and valuable information can be gained that way, especially at the time of death, time of death can be crucial, of course, to being appointed to who might be responsible for the death, very, very important.

So, as a part of my research for that I was reading a book by an American forensic etymologist, someone who was, in fact, a consultant on one of the first CSI programs, and the book is called A Fly for the Prosecution. And, I was reading all sorts of graphic cases about blood flies and dead bodies, and I was eating my lunch at the time, and I thought to myself, “You have really, or have you got a problem, or certainly, you’ve certainly lost some sensitivity.”

I just somehow distract myself somehow from that, and the difficulty in writing, for me, true crime, is not about that, it’s about the making sure you have all the facts right, and the realization that you can’t rely on people’s memories, you’ve always got to go to the documents. You’ve always got to go to the trial transcripts and the forensic reports, or the coroner’s reports, or whatever you can get your hands on like that.

Valerie
With both Written on the Skin and Cold Case Files, they are books and so they are longer tomes than the articles that you are used to writing as a journalist. What was that process like because you do get a sense of satisfaction when you write an article and it’s done, and you’ve spent however long on it, but it’s done. It takes far longer to write a book. How did you get into that groove, or did you feel like it was kind of never ending?

Liz
Well, sometimes because when you’re writing a chapter, in my case, on a particular crime, do you have to know everything. When you’re writing a newspaper article, well, you just don’t have the space to start, there’s no point in knowing everything because you can’t explain it. And sometimes there are certain issues you might think, “Well, I’m not even going to raise that because it’s going to take me 800 words to get into it and out of it, and if I’ve only got 1300, there’s no point.” So often the more difficult issues, you won’t even flag because you don’t want to confuse your reader or frustrate them.

Valerie
Absolutely.

Liz
Often you don’t need to know. For example, a forensic specialist might say to you what a bad time they had with a particular prosecutor in court, and there were all sorts of awkward questions in front of the jury. And you’ll have a quote saying that, and you won’t need to go and check the transcripts and see.

If you are going to put that in a book, you have to make sure that, in fact, the jury was there at the time, and I’ve discovered on various occasions — in fact in the first book, in Written on the Skin, I was originally planning to include much more biographical information about the experts in there. In fact, my first very elephantine draft had a lot of that kind of stuff in it.

And in, in one particular case, a forensic pathologist was telling me about what a hard time she’d had in court, and actually it had inspired her to study law herself. I actually went to the transcripts — and her memory was, in fact, incorrect. She was given a bad time by a prosecutor, in fact it was the defense lawyer, sorry, the defense lawyer, but it was not in the presence of the jury. The jury had been sent out in that particular area. It didn’t matter, but it would matter for the point she was making if I put it in the book. I had to know. So it was a really — it was really, really salutary lesson.

I’ve also, for example, once interviewing a very senior police officer and he had one of his colleagues there, and he was telling me about a particular cold case involving a series of rapes. And, again, he was talking about what the jury did or said. And in fact, he had it wrong. He was conflating a few different cases, and it’s entirely understandable because they deal with so many, but you have to go back to the paperwork and be absolutely sure.

Valerie
Wow, so the process of researching is so meticulous and so particular compared to, say, if you were researching something for historical fiction where you kind of just —

Liz
Oh yes.

Valerie
— you’re researching, but nowhere near the extent to what you were doing. Do you find it interesting, or mundane, or how do you feel about it?

Liz
Well, to me it’s all part of just putting the story together because particularly with this second book where there were fewer cases. The first book had 55 cases, so they weren’t all told in such detail. This one they were. So it was very much a question of reconstructing the action of the detectives, or particularly the actions of the forensic scientists. I really needed to know, have that bash by blow account.

I know I was backwards and forwards with email to one particular British cold case expert, Dave Barclay [assumed spelling], who wrote the forward to my book. He says lovely things about me in the foreword, but he was simply impressed by my pursuit of accuracy. But I know that I was really quite irritating at times because I was always sending these apologetic emails with the header, “Sorry, one more pedantic question.”

Valerie
Yes.

Liz
Because then he had to go back to his notes and say, “Yes, was it the sample on the wall which yielded the crucial DNA, or was it a mixed sample?” “Where was the blood stain,” that kind of thing. If you’re going to actually describe what happened in a lively — well, kind of using the techniques you use in fiction to really bring this thing to life, you need to know those things, and you need to know, often, what was the weather like that day, say, or what time of day was it. All of those questions that when you’re interviewing someone for a newspaper, you don’t need to know that kind of detail.

Valerie
Presumably, even though the cases themselves, and the facts of the cases are fascinating, as you’ve just mentioned, you need to tell the story. What do you do to be able to tell these gory stories in the most appropriate way. What do you think is key to that?

Liz
Well, it’s like any story you have to figure out where to start. And it’s not as silly as it sounds, because sometimes you want to pique the reader’s interest, so you have to give them a hint of what might come, that there might be some extraordinary forensic discovery to come, but you don’t want to tell them the whole thing.

Now do you start in the middle and work backwards, do you start — if you start at the very beginning with the crime, well, then they don’t really necessarily know that — it might be worth hanging around to find out what happens. You start with the fact that this case was solved by an extraordinary forensic piece of analysis, you feel like you’re giving it away, those sorts of considerations are always very important.

I usually try and get the reader on the side with either the victim or the detective, I find. You want them to have some emotional reason for reading. Even thought they’ve got the book in their hand, so it’s slightly less, possibly, onus on you to grab them in the way that you feel you have to when you’re writing a piece for a newspaper, but still you still want them to keep reading.

Valerie
For sure, so with each case then do you already know from your gut at the start what your hook is going to be, or do you want until you research everything and then —

Liz
I tend to wait until I research everything. Sometimes I have an idea of how I want to start something, and you write it the first time that way. And then you end up changing your mind. I had, for example, one of the stories in the book is called The Almost Perfect Bank Heist. My idea for this was these guys who were very, very well-prepared as bank robbers, they had done their homework in terms of their robbery, but they hadn’t done their science homework because, in a sense, it was forensic science that undid them.

They used some extraordinarily unusual masks to cover their faces in the execution of this robbery and then they threw them away in the street. And unbeknownst to them a Discovery was taking place about 20Ks away from them at the police forensic science lab, which enabled scientists to get trace DNA from just bits of sweat off the lining of the masks.

And so very much how I started it all, how I had in mind that I was going to say that these two perpetrators had done their homework as bank robbers, but they hadn’t done their science homework. But in fact, I realized that I couldn’t start it that way, because I was giving away too much. I ended up started it with the fact that they had done their homework and how the planning was so good.

And I then went on to talk about the detectives and how one in particular had joined the armed robbery squad because he wanted to match wits with criminals who had done their homework. He didn’t just want to be arresting people who stormed into banks and jumped over the counter and waved guns in people’s faces. He enjoyed that challenge of tracking down someone who had done a really good job.

I really didn’t get to the bit, I did get to use the line about the science homework, but I didn’t get to use it until halfway through. It’s often not until you start writing it that you realize that you have to adjust that original, or what a great intro idea that you had initially come up with.

Valerie
Now, obviously you’ve come across various cases that could have made it into your book, how did you decide the ones that made the cut?

Liz
Well, sometimes those decisions were made for me because I just couldn’t get, some of them were cases that I wanted to have for the book, there was one particular case which involved forensic dentistry, and I did touch on forensic dentistry with the Egyptology case. But there was a case of a young tourist who’d gone missing and remained unidentified in Australia for a long time until this forensic dentist, who I used for the first book had basically solved the crime.

And, basically, I never got — he was happy to talk to me, the dentist, but I needed permission from the coroner to allow people to look at coronial files that are less than 10 years old, I think after 10 years they go to the archives so you can get them. You have to get permission from the family. Now the family of this unfortunate young man were in Germany. This had all taken place in the late ‘90s, and the mother was an old woman then, and I knew she was dead, and so did the forensic dentist, so of course the coroner’s office wasn’t going to get a reply when they wrote to the family. But they just wouldn’t see reason about that, and so they hadn’t had a reply from the family, therefore I couldn’t do that case. It was really annoying.

My main criteria in choosing the cases that made the cut was were they different enough. Many of them involved DNA, but I didn’t want them all to involve just the DNA database cause it’s what so often happens these days, it is the most common way that a cold case is solved is that a DNA profile is extracted from old evidence because of the newer techniques, evidence from a crime that took place in the ‘80s or ‘90s. And then, if there were no leads or suspects, what happens is that that profile goes onto the database, and then, if the police are lucky, they get what’s called a ‘cold hit’, where that perpetrator commits some other crime down the line, is arrested, convicted, his or her DNA goes onto the database then, and it’s automatically run against all the unknown crime scene DNA data on the database, and they get a hit. And then they know, that brings a connection between two cases.

I was happy just to have one of those, but I needed to have more cases with more back story to those, so a case where, a case which, for example involved the covert collection of DNA, I liked that idea. I had a case where a police officer had to basically get into somebody’s house and he asked him to draw a map.

This suspect was a serial complainer, he complained about a driver who supposedly had stolen stuff from his farm. So the police visited him and said, “Look, can you give us more information, can you help us?”  And they brought a piece of paper and a clean pen, and they were hoping to get DNA just from him touching the paper. But they got more than that because the guy was very excited as he was telling them the story, and spittle was collecting in the corner of his mouth and falling onto the paper. They got the DNA that way, that gave that particular case an extra level of interest.

Valerie
It sounds almost addictive researching and finding out these stories. Do you find that you’re doing this even when you’re not writing a book?

Liz
I always take a interest.  When I was close to the end of the book I found, or heard about a case in Tasmania where, it actually made world headlines this case, where an armed robber had been identified some eight or ten years later because eight or ten years earlier, when this robbery had taken place, a sharp eyed police officer had spotted a fat bodied leech lying on the ground, and he thought, none of the police had a leech bites, the victim had no leech bites, clearly the leech had ridden in on the clothing, or leg, or whatever of the perpetrator. This leech was taken off to the crime lab and the blood extracted, and the DNA profile extracted. And then they just waited, and sometime down the track that perpetrator committed another crime, and it was a drug offense that time, and he was DNA profiled, and so his involvement in the earlier crime came to light.

I had already pretty much finished the book by then, but I managed to squeeze it into the introduction. These days, I have to say, I have a Google Alert which brings up cold cases, but I haven’t been looking at then because I’ve now finished the book, and I have thoughts about doing a UK version of this book. I have got four UK cases in the book, but I’d kind of quite like to have a go at trying a different market. So, I will start — but looking at those Google Alerts more closely probably over the next few months.

Valerie
It’s not everyday that you hear, “I have a Google Alert for cold case files.”

Liz
Most of them come from America I hasten to say, and they’re all a bit the same. It’s a handy way to keep your eyes on what’s happening, having a Google Alert, a Google News Alert.

Valerie
You say that you’re interested in perhaps trying something different next. You’ve previously written fiction.

Liz
I have, I wrote a novel in 1995, which was inspired by my time living in Germany. I had gone there in the mid ‘80s, just as a tourist really. That classic thing of meeting someone and he said, “Why don’t you come live with me?” And I thought, well, I was kind of at a bit of a loose end at the time, I was working in London, and I thought, “Oh, why not change,” you know? “ It’s good as a holiday,” and in fact it wasn’t really, but I did get a novel out of it. Although at the time, when I was having a really ghastly time there, I used to think, “At least I’ll get something out of this, from the writing point of view.”

Valerie
Do you have a preference to fiction or true crime?

Liz
Well, it’s interesting, it’s been almost a practical thing. I was working at the time Pan Macmillan contacted me back in 2003, when I wrote the article about the fire and bomb blast examiner, I was actually working on a novel. In fact, after the first novel, it was a natural order, after that was published I’d started working on the second novel, which I finished. And it came very close to being published at Penguin, but it didn’t get published.

Then I started actually writing a crime novel. And I was about five chapters into it, when Pan Macmillan contacted me and I suddenly thought, “I think I’ll just start writing non-fiction.” It seemed easier in the sense that I already had someone who wanted to publish it for me, you know?  And then that sort of put me off on that trail.

I’m interested in going back to crime fiction, but I’m not sure. I’m having a bit of a break at the moment. I’m going to go back to freelance journalism for a bit because it takes a lot out of you, writing a book. I was flat out on those really for 18 months. I think I’d like to just write shorter pieces for awhile.

Valerie
Yes, have some breathing space. When you are writing the book, your books, do you have a writing routine, or?

Liz
Oh, yes, it’s just discipline, discipline, discipline.

Valerie
Right.

Liz
You must get to the desk by ideally 9:00, or at the worst 9:30. I’m a probably excessively addicted to the word count. I’m always checking my word count. I feel that I can’t call it a day until I’ve written at least 1500 words, even if they’re not all usable. I find, you really feel like you have to be moving forward. Even though some days, that thing about how do I start, I’m a shocker at starting and restarting, and I can’t move forward until I have the first few paragraphs right. Maybe that’s a newspaper thing because the first few paragraphs are so crucial.

And it’s a bit silly, really, because in essence you can sometimes just say, “OK, well I’ll just write this bit, and it’ll fit in slot somewhere later,” but I just don’t feel right doing that. I just like to be comfortable with the opening, even though sometime later I may come back to it and change it. I like to know that I’m happy with where I’m at, and that I’m happy with the 1,000 or 1,500 words that preceded it, and I can comfortable keep moving forward.

Valerie
I totally relate to that. I always have to start the beginning, and make sure that’s right as well.

With your books that are so research-based, do you do all the research first, and then get stuck in to do it?  Do you do it case by case?   How does it work?

Liz
What I tended to do, I actually start the research while I was still — I left the Sunday Age in the middle of 2009, and then I’d started the research after I’d signed the contract, which was some time earlier than that. I was sort of pecking away at bits and pieces.

Sometimes it varied, because, for example, I had contacted Dave Barclays who’s this British cold case expert who wrote the forward to the book. And it actually appears in four cases. I only got onto to him through a West Australian case, through the Mallard case, which is a case involving a very unfortunate man who was jailed for 12.5 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Andrew Mallard.

Dave Barclay had come out to Australia to do the cold case re-investigation of that case. Mallard was freed from jail, while they didn’t know who’d done it, they knew he hadn’t. Then the cold case investigation started.

I had become aware of Dave through that, and I contacted him, and then I realized that, firstly, he’d been involved in a couple of cases that I was already on, and then he told me about one other that he thought was worth pursuing. It was the case of a women call Hilda Morrel who was a, best known as a rose grower and an anti-nuclear activist who’d been murdered in 1984 in the UK. And for many, many years, it was thought that basically she was the victim of a conspiracy, that she was murdered because she knew something about either anti-nuclear materials, or something to do with the sinking of the Del Granno, because her nephew had been in the Navy. There were so many conspiracy theories circulating around this murder, and it turned out to be a simple botched robbery by a teenage that had gone wrong, and that was later discovered by a cold case investigation.

In a sense it was a mixture.  I try to have done all the research before I start writing, however, in an ideal circumstance.  In fact, to come back to the case of the almost perfect bank heist, I had trouble getting onto the detective that I was after. At that point I had this court transcript from the case, I had an interview with the prosecutor, so he’d been kind enough to give me all his notes and a whole lot of other material.

In that case, I actually wrote the case up, and then leaving spaces for where I wanted more information from the police officers who’d actually investigated it. I had a pretty good idea, because I’d read the entire court transcript right through, I knew what had happened. And that actually worked really well, because I knew, by writing a draft of the story, I knew the particular things I wanted to know from them. Often when you interview the talent first you don’t know what you don’t know yet, and then you have to come back to them, so that was quite useful.

Valerie
Finally, what’s your advice to other writers out there who have this fascination with crime and want to explore writing it, but they’re not sure whether they want to do crime fiction, whether they want to do true crime, which way to go.

Liz
I think you have to ask yourself often, “What do I have to offer?” You have to look at it from the other end, I think sometimes. Unless you’re prepared to write just for the sheer pleasure of it, and hand out copies to your friends.

“Is there an audience for this?”  That’s always the key question you have to ask yourself, “Who would want to read this book, and why?”  Because that will help you, clarifying that will help you get a publisher.
I guess I’m very, as a newspaper person, I’m very much, “If I can’t sell this, I’m not going to write it.” You know?  I’m in awe of people who are prepared to write kind of just on spec, and so that’s to me the key question, “Does the world need this?”  “Am I filling a gap?”  “Is this crime of interest to me?”  “Is it of interest to other people enough that a publisher is going to want to invest their hard earned dollars on it, on printing it and promoting it?”  That would be a key question.

In essence since I’ve become involved in non-fiction, have somehow imagined that non-fiction was, in a way, not easy to write, but it seemed that advances for it were healthier than were advances for fiction. But that may be changing.  At the moment, as you know, we are in a really worrying time for publishing. The demise of Borders and Angus and Robertson has, for example, slashed, automatically slashing advances because it’s slashing the number of books the publishers know that they’ll be able to sell, because Borders would automatically take certain sets of books. They’d take one or two thousand. It’s a time where more and more, I think, writers have to be asking themselves, “Who is my audience?”  “Who will buy this book?”

Valerie
And, presumably, would you also say that they need to become familiar with crime, and procedures, and police work, and that kind of thing?

Liz
Oh yes.

Valerie
What’s your advice on how to do that?

Liz
Well, read, read, read. There’s so much stuff available just in libraries and on the internet about techniques, about forensic techniques. My book’s are a great source for people wanted to write fiction because they contain stories that are usable.

Valerie
It’s real.

Liz
Or adaptable for a subplot.  But it’s terribly important — readers — it’s interesting, in crime fiction there are the sort of — you have to get the small facts right. You can tell big lies, like most forensic and crime fiction contain huge basic lies, like how many suspects because you can’t have a case with 100 suspects in a novel. It’s just not believable — it was believable, but readers will get mad and horribly confused. Yet the typical complex case might have as many as 100, sometimes 200 potential, if not suspects, persons of interest. And you can’t possibly render that in fiction. You have to narrow down the number of suspects so that the reader can keep track of them.

And then also the number of people who are at any crime scene. In real life there are huge teams of people, in fiction you have to boil those functions down and blend them. So you’ll have, on CSI, for example, in television, you’ll have the forensic pathologist who often will be doing other stuff as well, you’ll have trace evidence people who also do DNA. Which would never happen in real life. They’re all highly specialized, very small areas, and there’s vast teams of people.

Valerie
Do you sit there and watch CSI and go, “No, that wouldn’t happen; oh, that’s real.”

Liz
I do, that’s exactly what I do. And it’s mostly, “Oh God, they would never wear that.” And they would never do stuff at the scene. They are always somehow getting all this whiz-bang stuff out of the back of their car and doing stuff at the scene. You never do stuff at the scene except for possibly, of course, actually working on a blood trail, or something like that with Lumenol to show up blood stains. Most work that can be done back at labs will be done back at the lab, if there is any choice about it because it’s so much more controllable.

Valerie
So, if we want the real thing, we’re going to read your books.

Liz
Absolutely, yes.

Valerie
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Liz.

Liz
It’s a pleasure.


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