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FORENSICS 179: WHAT IS THAT ODOR?

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. Kindly note that the characters and locations in the following essay are fictitious and have been created to represent persons and places associated with a possible crime solved with the aid of an unusual, but real, forensic method.

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The telephone call was directed to the office of Captain Billy Miller, who was in charge of a police precinct in Gulfax City. Among those he commanded, he was often referred to as Barney Miller, after the popular situation-comedy and character having had that name. Miller sported a mustache that gave him an appearance similar to that of the character, but he lacked a similar sense of humor. Miller’s smile was reserved for off-duty hours and was not often seen even then.

The captain’s office adjoined a squad room containing a meeting table and a number of cubicles. Each cubicle was shared by two officers who worked different shifts. When not out investigating crime scenes and interviewing witnesses, they wrote reports, discussed theories and received assignments from Miller. The incoming call was to advise Captain Miller of an apparent murder of a well-known trial judge, Malcolm Bridger. As the captain hurried through the squad room, he collected two detectives, namely, one Colleen Donovan and one Riley Finch. The three hot-footed it to a police cruiser and headed for the suburbs. The late judge, a recent widower, had lived alone there in a large, Victorian-style house.

Upon arrival, the trio found Bridger’s body resting face-up on the floor of his study before a large, paper-strewn desk. The body was clothed in a light-blue lounging robe. Blood had escaped from a knife-inflicted chest wound, darkening the front of the robe. It appeared that Bridger had tried to defend himself before being stabbed. A.pair of glasses lay broken nearby, and a high-back chair lay on its side. Four depressions in the carpet disclosed the chair’s original position along one side of the desk. Neighbors discovered the body when they had arrived for a traditional Friday-evening card-playing foursome. Bridger had not responded to his doorbell, and his back door was ajar.

Captain Miller was all business and dispensed instructions to his crew of two in clipped, right-to-the-point sentences. After photgraphs were taken of the crime scene a medical examiner arrived and officially confirmed that the judge was dead. The body was then transported to the Gulfax morgue, where an autopsy would be performed. The detectives remained to attend to the business of note-taking. measuring, photographing, collecting and labeling the usual multitude of items that might prove to be important when identifying, finding and subsequently convicting Bridger’s killer. The potential evidence would be submitted to a laboratory for analysis by forensic specialists.

Among the items found near the body was a small, plastic article. Finch immediately identified it as an in-canal hearing aid, and Donavon said that it looked like one worn by her mother. They initially thought it had probably belonged to Bridger and had fallen out of his ear during the skirmish with his killer. Forensic analysis of ear wax (cerumen) adhering to it, however, excluded the judge as having been the wearer; and there was a good chance it had fallen from the attacker’s ear.

The judge had been well-liked and respected by everyone who knew him–even attorneys against whom he had ruled in court. As was to be expected, of course, felons to whom he had awarded prison terms did not generally number among his admirers. That alone substantially expanded the field of those who might have wished to seek revenge for him having reduced the size of their living quarters to a single, unfashionable cell. A recently paroled felon named Fester Sturbic, however, who had, in front of the entire court, strongly addressed the judge by a name not given him by his parents, naturally became a prime suspect.

Meanwhile, research had been directed at determining the possibility of using body odors from armpits and earwax for forensic purposes. It was thought their analyses could reveal persons’ identities, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, states of health and also where they had been and what they had eaten. It has long been known that mothers can recognize their babies by their odors. I can recall that, upon returning home after attending night classes, I was immediately able to determine which of my brother’s children had visited during the day.

In Sturbic’s case, there was evidence supporting a guilty verdict , but it was somewhat inconclusive. In the laboratory, the earwax found adhering to the hearing aid found near the judge’s body and that taken from Sturbic’s ear were separately warmed until each became an odorous gas. Each gas was then analyzed using a technique employing gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The results of the analyses were compared and found to be a match. When added to the evidence found previously, it easily resulted in a stiff sentence for the defendant.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Animal tissues come in four flavors: epithelial, connective, muscle and nervous. Epithelial tissue is relevant to this essay because it lines our ear canals and provides a function of transcellular transport. Epithelial migration acts as a conveyor belt for earwax, moving toward the entrance of the ear (auditory) canal, carrying particulate matter that might have gathered in the canal. It also carries debris dislodged from the canal wall by jaw movements. Epithelial cells migrate at a blinding speed, comparable to that of fingernail growth.

Earwax has another useful application. A build-up of earwax in toothless whales sometimes provides the only means of determining their ages. Blue whales are baleen whales, which have baleen plates that filter food from water. They evolved later than toothed whales and live for an estimated 80 to 90 years. Being some 98 feet in length and weighing some 190 tons, they are not only the largest living animal, they are the heaviest animal that ever lived.

2 comments to FORENSICS 179: WHAT IS THAT ODOR?

  • Fascinating piece, Amalgam, and done in a style that would work well in fiction – particularly mystery. You know, you really should think seriously about your abilities in that area. The lucid prose you employ works extremely well for any narrative in fiction, but as in this essay, those light touches of understated humor add just the right tone to a fast-paced detective story. You have the talent for saying something by omission. E.g. the captain’s lack of humor or the fact that certain defendants were not in the judge’s fan club. It’s a gentle stylistic approach that has a huge place in proven fiction. A very likable style. And given your careful attention to detail and depth of substance for things and events, it’s easy to see that you could succeed in full length fiction. You already have a successful profile in the nonfiction area of mystery. And now with the third book about to come out (FORENSICS 103), you are ready to branch out. Think about it. Srsly.

  • Robert Jones

    Holy dolphin, amigo. You surely know how to make one’s day. You pick up on all my attempts at inserting a bit of humor into pieces whose subjects are nonhumrously forensic and even on the intent of omissions. I must have had a good Irish role model somewhere along the line.

    One idea for the present piece was used to illustrate a relationship between humans and cold gadgets and processes. Hence the opening story bit. Another was to introduce Riley Finch and Colleen Donovan.
    Many thanks,
    Amalgam