Tag Archives: forensic

Forensic workplace becomes crime scene in dazzling thriller

Close to the Bone, by Lisa Black. Severn House. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.95.

The seventh title in Ms. Black’s Theresa McLean series of forensic mysteries packs a wallop that will knock you out. Because the pattern of killings reveals a common denominator connecting the victims, we not only have a serial killer on the loose but one whose crimes will bring readers an unusual and fascinating intimacy with the workings of evidence collection and handling. Someone is after Theresa’s colleagues. They have knowledge that he needs, and he will kill to get it. In fact, he has killed to get it. CloseToBoneCover

When Theresa returns to the Medical Examiner’s headquarters late one night, she discovers a blood trail that leads to a dead deskman. Another deskman is missing. The word “Confess,” scribed in blood, is positioned over the corpse.

Don’t feel sorry for me when I claim that this is a difficult book to write about. It is so well-crafted, tightly knit, and intelligently plotted that it is difficult to address its virtues without giving away too much and spoiling it for other readers. However, I will soldier on:

Another victim is soon discovered, leading Theresa to find a link to a yet another murder, this one ten year’s old, of a records secretary. By now it is clear that Theresa’s colleagues are on the killer’s list. How many? When does her number come up?

One thing is becoming clear. People who handle crime evidence – collect it, log it in, examine it, safeguard it, and interpret it – are in big trouble until the killer is apprehended.

What Ms. Black does so very well is take us through all the processes of the evidence journey. It is not the field so glamorously distorted in television drama. We learn about fingerprints, DNA, weapon identification, and changes in analysis and documentation brought about by digital technology. We see the immediate environment: lighting, storage cabinets, gurneys, and the layout of the workplace from deskmen’s desk to the property department to the autopsy suite.

We sense something like moral shadings in the odors of chemicals and decomposition. Throughout, Lisa Black’s descriptive powers are spellbinding. We learn: “The only nightmare-inducing items in the morgue’s basement were the plastic quart containers which looked like take-out soup but which were actually tissue sections of past victims. They would be kept for five years and then destroyed.”

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

Theresa, the ultimate professional, is kept busy processing this unique crime scene and waving away the police who keep leaving their own evidence (fingerprints, etc.) all over, complicating her work.

Just at the right time, the killer is revealed – but he is far from apprehended. With this revelation, it becomes clear how he has such an intimate knowledge of the workplace, its personnel, layout, and procedures. He has been after a particular piece of evidence – a piece of custom diamond jewelry. Why he needs it relates to the ten year old murder case that had been solved via a confession. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 20, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, the November 26 Fort Myers edition, the November 27 Bonita Springs and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, and the December 4 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here Florida Weekly – Close to the Bone 1 and here Florida Weekly – Close to the Bone 2

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Telling details build suspense in forensic investigation

Blunt Impact, by Lisa Black. Severn House. 224 pages. $28.95.

This is the fifth title in Ms. Black’s Theresa MacLean series, and they keep getting better and better. The main character grows more interesting, the forensic detail more intriguing, and the suspense more intense. When an attractive young woman, a cement “finisher” on a massive downtown Cleveland construction project, is found to have fallen to her death from the 23rd floor, the first question is whether her fall was accidental or was she pushed. Theresa’s forensic detective work makes a case for murder, and now the questions are by whom and why. bluntcoverimage

What’s most curious is that this was not a workday incident, but something that happened in the middle of the night when the site was closed and secured. What was she doing up there in the first place?

The deceased, Samantha Zebrowski, seems to have been well-liked by her co-workers, but co-workers and supervisors are the most likely to have access to the site after working hours.

Because “Sam” was well-known for frequenting neighborhood bars and often leaving in male company, one could conjecture that such a late night encounter led to violence. However, other possible motives come up as the investigation continues and further evidence is processed.

Perhaps her death was orchestrated as a symbolic act by a crazed member of the protest group whose members didn’t want what they considered to be an inhumane penitentiary in the heart of the city.

There are a lot of perhapses. And there is another center of narrative interest that connects to the primary one. Sam’s eleven year old daughter Anna witnessed the crime. In fact, Anna witnesses a lot of things. This sensitive, perceptive, and lonely child is a wanderer. She regularly sneaks out of her bedroom window, climbs down a tree, and explores the city. Though warned not to, “Ghost,” as she is nicknamed, puts herself in the way of danger. Readers get to know her well, as many of the novel’s chapters are presented through her point of view.

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

Ghost’s description of the man who struggled with her mother partly shapes the investigation. What drives Ghost to participate in the investigation – in fact, to conduct her own – is a sense of responsibility and, now that she has no mother, to discover her father. The stories she has been told about her father have only confused her; they’ve been lies meant to protect her. Obviously, the reader is also hooked on these questions: who is Ghost’s father? Did he have reason to murder Sam?

The investigation is pursued by Theresa with the assistance of her cousin Frank, who is a police detective, and Frank’s partner, Angela. The interaction among these three along with the larger workings of a major city police department and legal system brings in a great deal of procedural detail. Still, it is the details of the forensics work that is so strongly appealing. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 10, 2013 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the April 11 Bonita Springs edition, and the April 18 Naples edition,click here Florida Weekly – Blunt Impact 1 and here Florida Weekly – Blunt Impact 2

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A forensic field day in Lisa Black’s Cleveland

“Trail of Blood,” by Lisa Black. William Morrow. 432 pages. $24.99 hardback; $7.99 mass market paperback.

Cape Coral writer Lisa Black has designed a rousing story with two timelines. One story tells of a serial killer operating in Depression-era Cleveland. The killer’s trademark? Beheading the corpse and (sometimes) removing other body parts from the victim’s torso. In today’s Cleveland, two corpses show up. One is a decayed body that turns up in an abandoned building about to be demolished. It seems to be the work of the infamous Torso Killer of the mid-1930s. What’s especially intriguing is that the torso proves to be the remains of a Cleveland policeman. The other body, newly deceased, looks like the work of a copycat – a Torso Killer wannabe.

The narration begins with the present-day perspective, though moving back and forth between forensic scientist Theresa MacLean’s investigations of both crimes. Once the investigations are well underway, the second time line opens up, following policeman James Miller as he investigates a crime at 4950 Pullman – the very place where he is found dead over 75 years later. From this point, Lisa Black develops the timelines in alternating chapters, bringing them closer together while doubling the novel’s suspense and interest.

In this way, the reader discovers two versions of Cleveland, two states of forensic science, and two stages of the railroad industry (an important element in the setting and plot). Ms. Black’s interest in fictional speculation about an actual series of crimes has brought her the challenge of creating, for part of her novel, an effective period piece. She has proven to be more than up to the task.

The killer (killers, actually) had done a fantastic job of covering his tracks. In spite of the title (which ultimately takes on an unexpected meaning), the blood trail is almost nonexistent. One great pleasure of this book, the third in Ms. Black’s Theresa MacLean series, is the detailed yet gripping presentation of the forensic investigation. The author, an experienced forensic professional, knows exactly what is possible and probable in such matters and shuns the spectacular and improbable overreach of those popular forensic-based television shows.

A primary question that Theresa has to solve: how does the killer move his victims from the crime scenes to the locations where they are discovered without being seen? Without leaving a clue? Related questions: What is the meaning of the dismemberments? How, in an act of extreme bravado, does he pull off yet another murder at a scene swarming with police officers who expect it?

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the August 10, 2011 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 11 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Black (2). For pdf files, click here Black pdf – 1 and here Black pdf – 2.

For additional reviews of Lisa Black’s work, including her earlier books as Elizabeth Becka, click on the following links:


Ft.Myers magazine – Lisa Black

Florida Weekly – Lisa Black

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Lisa Black: Top Talent in Top Form

With “Evidence of Murder,” Cape Coral author Lisa Black leaps to the forefront of contemporary mystery novelists. Her protagonist, Cleveland forensic specialist Theresa MacLean, introduced in last year’s “Takeover,” is a new star in the firmament of crime solvers. LisaBlack-2

When Ms. MacLean’s cousin, Detective Frank Patrick, asks her to help him investigate what seems to be a missing persons case, Ms. MacLean complains that she has “a building full of dead people” to examine. Soon enough, however, the missing Jillian Perry turns up dead. Though preliminary findings suggest suicide, other factors cast suspicion on that hypothesis.

To read the rest of this review as it appears in the September 3-9, 2009 edition of the Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Black

Bonus material: The following capsule biography and interview where prepared for newspaper publication but not used. You get it here exclusively on Phil Jason’s Web Site. See also: Elizabeth Becka and Ft.Myers magazine – Lisa Black

About Lisa Black

 Clevelander Lisa Black started writing fiction in grade school, and she kept on writing longer and more complex stories through high school and college. Shortly after graduating from John Carroll University in 1985, with a B.A. in Political Science, she completed her first full length novel. After too many years as a secretary for a gerontological institute, Black sought a change. She returned to college and earned a B.S. in Biology from Cleveland State University in 1993. After an internship at the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s office, she was hired full time in December of 1995.

at Cleveland Public Library

at Cleveland Public Library

 Several years later, having become an experienced forensic scientist, Black moved to Cape Coral when her husband persuaded her to escape the Cleveland weather. She began working for the Cape Coral Police Department in 2000, and she also became more and more occupied with her writing, which now drew on the material she had learned as a forensic specialist. As Elizabeth Becka, she published two novels: “Trace Evidence” in 2005 and “Unknown Means” in 2008.

The vagaries of the publishing business led this well-reviewed writer to change her publisher and her writing name. Lisa Black brought out the hostage thriller “Takeover” late last year, and now we have “Evidence of Murder,” officially released on September 8.

PKJ:  Do you outline?

LB: I don’t outline formally, but I’ll jot down a sequence of events. I have to know what’s going to happen from the beginning to the end, with all major plot points. And once I start, I keep myself to some sort of word count schedule, with time off only for vacations and major holidays. I have a fear that if I stop, I won’t be able to start again.

PKJ: Do you stop to polish sentences, paragraphs, chapters? Or do you push through an entire draft and then revise the whole thing?

LB: I’ll stop to polish something if I notice it, or go back and add or change something if it’s vitally important, but otherwise I like to go from start to finish and then revise the whole draft, usually twice.

PKJ: Do you do journal work? Character studies? Any kind of practice or warm-ups?

LB: No, I’m terrible! I should do all of that and I don’t. I’m trying to make myself do more prep work to make my characters deeper and more real, and to reduce rewriting (which I loathe).

PKJ: What parts of the writing process do you enjoy the most? — or find just plain hard work?

LB: I enjoy plotting it all out in my head beforehand. I’ll have this and that, but I still need a reason for this to happen…and you think and you go to work and you exercise and buy groceries and think some more and eventually it comes to you. Rewriting is plain hard work, which is why I loathe it. It’s also stressful because I find it impossible to know if my changes are making the book better or worse.

PKJ: Aside from forensic matters, which you already know plenty about and must keep up with on the job, what kinds of research have been necessary in your writing?

LB: I try to go to the places in Cleveland where my scenes take place, and I read books. I read a few books on hostage negotiation for Takeover, on the history of video games for Evidence of Murder, and on America during the Depression for the upcoming Past Crimes.

PKJ: You’ve been living, working, writing in Cape Coral for quite a while now. Any chance readers will see this town, or SW Florida, show up in a Lisa Black novel?

LB: It would be fun to bring her here on vacation. The differences in the climate alone would give me plenty to write about.

PKJ: Any hobbies or causes that you’d like to share with readers?

BL: Write to the troops with www.anysoldier.com! Otherwise my only hobbies are working out, reading, and going to Cleveland to visit my 90 year old mother. I’m very boring, I guess.

PKJ: What started you on the path to joining the mystery writer fraternity/sorority?

LB: I think it’s genetic. My grandfather was a juvenile probation officer. My grandmother read mysteries, my father read and tried to write them, and they’re all I’ve read for as long as I can remember.

PKJ: Most readers read for fun; many writers read to learn from other writers. What have you learned from the work of others?

LB: I learned from Jeffrey Deaver to stick to the story. I learned from Tami Hoag to have lots of emotion. I learned from Patricia Cornwell to have conflict from every facet of the character’s life. I don’t remotely succeed in putting these lessons to use in my writing, yet, but I’m working on it.

PKJ: How do you get into the heads of your villains?

LB: The villain is simply someone who wants something really, really bad, and isn’t going to stop at anything or anyone to get it. While the hero has all sorts of rules and conventions and other duties to deal with as they’re trying to solve the situation, and the villain doesn’t. So I look at things from their narrowly focused point of view, because their narrow point of view is what makes them scary.

PKJ: What’s worked for you regarding networking with other writers?

LB: A subgroup of Sisters in Crime called the Guppies (Great UnPublished). We have an email digest where we support each other and discuss questions about writing. That’s how I found critique partners, who were (and still are) invaluable.

PKJ: What are you working on now?

LB: A novel based on a true story about a serial killer who preyed on Clevelanders during the Great Depression.

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BOOK BEAT 64 – Elizabeth Becka

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   February 27, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Cape Coral resident Elizabeth Becka, who introduced forensic specialist Evelyn James in “Trace Evidence” (2005, and recently released in paperback), has now followed up with a startling new case for James to unravel. “Unknown Means” continues this heroine’s career in the Cleveland Medical Examiner’s office, while Elizabeth Becka (who once worked for the Coroner’s Office of Cleveland) continues her career with the Cape Coral Police Department. Though too many writers don’t take this age-old advice, Becka has wisely chosen to write about what she knows. 

The plot of “Unknown Means” involves a series of deaths, all to attractive women of some social prominence, as well as an attack on Becka’s good friend and co-worker, Marissa Gonzalez, who is about to marry into that social sphere. Becka’s challenge, which of course is the readers’ puzzle as well, is to discover the who, why, and how behind this series of crimes. The method of operation is a blatant calling card suggesting a single perpetrator.

The “locked room” crime scenes suggest that the criminal is known to the victims or has some special means of access to their various homes. While there are plausible suspects for the individual crimes, Becka needs to find the common denominators of motive and victim selection that point to a single actor. A smudge of grease ends up being a primary clue to the killer’s identity. It is one piece of the physical evidence that eventually leads to the solution.

Collecting and examining physical evidence is what Evelyn James does, and she is very good at it without being flashy or possessed of uncanny insights. The scientific work is interesting, though a bit tedious as well, and Becka knows just how much description of evidence collecting and laboratory work is enough to feed readers’ curiosity while keeping the story moving. She also knows how to continue building Evelyn James as a credible, engaging character, a working mom with concerns that make conflicting demands on her time and her emotional energy.

The protagonist’s character is developed through James’s commitment to her work and to her sticky relationship with her teenage daughter. Though the daughter, Angel, remains a somewhat insubstantial figure in this novel, that’s in part in keeping with the willed distance caused by her independent streak and the odd hours that James’s work often requires. That is, the daughter is not home that much, as she is beginning to build her own life, and when she is home James may not be. There is more to be done with this relationship in future novels. Another side of Evelyn James is shown in her complicated and convoluted relationship with homicide detective David Milaski.  It’s one of those “I should know better than to get involved in a workplace romance” situations, and Elizabeth Becka handles it quite well.

Solving the crimes involves getting to know the victims, and here too Becka crafts her narration of the investigation in an efficient and colorful manner. The portraits of the women are sharply drawn, especially that of bossy Kelly Alexander, whose family company owns the salt mines (yes, salt mines in Cleveland) in which an explosion takes place that kills several people, providing a motive for someone to kill Ms. Alexander.  

Interrogation is an important part of crime fiction, and in “Unknown Means” this part of the inquiry is frequently handled by Detective Milaski and his senior sidekick, Bruce Riley. Evelyn James does her share, but it is both realistic and entertaining to hear this range of voices gathering information. Roles are reversed when James herself is questioned by an aggressive young reporter named Clio Helms.

The city of Cleveland is a major presence in “Unknown Means,” as it should be. Becka establishes the city’s overarching personality as well as the particular feel of various neighborhoods and suburbs. Her handling of place is authoritative without being overdone. Of course, readers will wonder if James will eventually follow her creator to Southwest Florida. Meanwhile, following Evelyn James while she follows the evidence in Cleveland is a very satisfying experience.

Find out more about this must-read author at elizabethbecka.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.


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