Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Things that make you go hmmm...

By Tom Adair;
Author of The Scent of Fear

Criminalists are a strange bunch. We see the world differently than most others. Early in your career you make an effort to look for clues but after a while subtle things just seem to set off your radar. Such was the case the other day when I met an old colleague for lunch. He's a really good CSI as well as a Vietnam War veteran. We met at his favorite burger shop Smashburger (if you're not from Colorado you're missing out!) to get caught up on the grand kids, life, and "shop talk". While we were eating a guy dressed in fatigues walked in with a woman. There are a number of military bases in the area (as well as recruitment centers) so seeing a soldier is not uncommon. But there was something about this guy that grabbed my attention. Not having served in the military I have only a passing knowledge of uniform protocol. I casually began paying attention and noticed several things that seemed odd to me. First, his hair was longer than mine but still less than shoulder length. Some SPEC OPS soldiers are allowed longer hair and beards but it was more the length and style which seemed wrong. The camouflage pattern didn't seem right either. The elements were larger and showed no signs of sun fading. He was a "buck" Sergeant according to his arm patch but a tab below the patch labeled him as a sniper. Now I'm no expert but sniper's don't typically announce their abilities like that. A sniper is a target to the enemy so announcing your skill is kind of like putting a target on your head.

At some point I looked at my buddy and asked him to take a look. Without hesitation he said with a smirk "the guy in the 'sniper' uniform?" Turns out he had seen the guy too and done much of the same assessment. Obviously, we never approached the guy and said "what gives?" but both of us were convinced the guy was a fraud. Beyond the uniform the guy just didn't have that "look" in his eyes. You can see it in the eyes of many police and military. They are always aware of their surroundings, even if just giving a subtle glance around. Combat veterans have a very "hardened" look about them which I have a hard time describing but an easy time spotting. Not a mean look, or a paranoid darting of the eyes, just a look of extreme confidence mixed with a pinch of caution. We were both staring at this guy and he never once looked our way. It was like his radar was completely shut off.

I was reminded of this experience when I recently read yet another story of stolen valor where a man claimed to be a US Navy SEAL sniper. Apparently, this is a common tactic to meet women. Capt. Larry Bailey (former SEAL) famously stated "there were about 500 active duty SEALs during the Vietnam War and I've met all 20,000 of them". I don't know how these guys think they can fool the real SEALS. Seeing as how heroes like Brandon Webb trained many (if not most) of the SEAL snipers today it's a wonder how these con-men think they can get away with their lies.

SEAL segue aside, the point of this post is that CSIs and others are trained to notice small details which seem out of order. Even if we don't have an expert knowledge of a subject (like me and military uniforms) something still catches our eye. This is an important attribute to consider when you are writing a police procedural. Any of us can make mistakes and overlook something small but the more inconsistencies we see the more likely our inner alarm will sound. My friend and I silently took in the same details about the same guy without ever alerting the other.  We found nothing "suspicious" about the other patrons.

These "alarms" are often called "red flags" and are shaped by our life experiences and interests (hobbies, past occupations, etc). The training CSIs receive simply helps refine our ability to filter the information. Ultimately, it means that we're tougher to fool. So if your bad guy is staging the crime scene or simply offering a fake alibi you should consider how your character will evaluate that information. There is a saying among interrogators..."little lie, big lie" which simply means if suspects are willing to lie about small inconsequential things then maybe they are lying about bigger issues too. When auditing your scenes or developing your characters pay close attention to their interests and life experiences. How will these experiences shape the filtering of information in their environment? Are they lying about something they have great knowledge or experience with? Are they making up a story based on a false perception (like the plot to a movie or book in their home). Fooling a good detective or CSI will be difficult so you'll need to think about how to construct the lie or ruse in such a way that is plausible. Someone once said the best lies contain 80% truth. That may be accurate but a good detective or CSI will sniff out the other 20%.


  1. Your information just keeps getting better, Tom!

    When I read this I decided maybe the fake sniper did notice the two of you staring at him but elected not to acknowledge you. I'm betting a real combat veteran would have met your gaze.

  2. Great post as always! I've printed this to reread before I write my next interrogation scene.

    It also made me wonder if I've made my Detective Jackson character observant enough. But in the course of a story, he's so focused on his present case, the reader doesn't spend much time with him in a casual way, such as having a burger with a friend. But you've got me thinking...again.

  3. Excellent post, Tom! Chock-full of great info and useable tips! Thanks for sharing some more of your expertise.

  4. Great post Tom. I also notice that hunters tend to be situationally aware from hours in the forest watching every little movement.

    Thanks for the insight.

  5. Great post. One of the things I liked about Erle Stanley Gardner was his work in highlighting improvements in police forensic techniques and the people involved. It is pretty amazing how far we have come.

    Of course, the drawback of well-trained CSIs and police detectives is that the novelist now has to appeal to the incompetency of the investigators to bring in the protagonist (assuming the main character is a private detective).

  6. No Peg, he never paid us any attention but you are right about a real combat vet taking notice. It's very realistic for a detective or CSI to miss something. Usually it's because our attention is directed elsewhere or there is pressure to close a case that seems "open and shut". It's at those moments (feeling rushed) that I remind myself to slow down. One mised clue is reasonable but several is unlikely. The main thing to remember is that the radar goes off. Like when you get that feeling someone is watching you. Most people dismiss it but a good detective will trust their instincts and look a little closer at the evidence before them. As a reader I'm disappointed to see a detective character ignore obvious conflicts with evidence, time lines, or missed evidence unless the character is designed to be lazy or a doofus (like Sal Vargas). Peter, as to your comment about a private detective I think if they have a health dose of common sense they can compete with any detective or CSI and with all the information out there a private detective can certainly be up to date on the latest forensic trends and techniques. No matter how advanced our technology gets it still boils down to a detectives ability to properly assess the nature and value of the results. Touch DNA analysis is a perfect example.

  7. Tom,
    Of all the hundred emails I get each day, I skip most of them, but never skip your posts. Thanks for making a better writer out of all of us.

    Kathy McKenzie-Runk
    Author of "Blood Ties: The Souvenir Killer" (free on www.amazon.com on May 15 for the Kindle or PC for Kindle.


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