Edinburgh Book Festival: Sue Black’s tale of injustice shocked audiences

Sue Black told the audience forensic science doesn't always sway jury. Picture: Contributed
Sue Black told the audience forensic science doesn't always sway jury. Picture: Contributed
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All academics should be like forensic anatomist Sue Black – sorry, that should be Professor Dame Sue Black – and if I ruled Scotland, I’d promote her even further, possibly as far as our first female president.

They should be natural storytellers, passionate about their subject, and innovate and educate at every turn. And somehow, they should be all of that without being too full of themselves or losing their natural down-to-earth sense of humour.

Anyone who was in the Main Tent on Tuesday afternoon will know that Black is all this and more. Introducing her, Val McDermid said she was ”the reason for the authenticity of my crime ­fiction”. “In other words,” Black interrupted, “she earns a lot of money on my back.”

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Yet for all the banter between old friends, this was a conversation that swung into dark places too. Black told about how work done in Dundee successfully established that vein variation on the backs of our hands is unique to each of us and is now scientifically admissible evidence of identity. Due to this, a number of paedophiles have been caught and identified from photographs: 28 are serving life sentences as a result.

Tragically, though, in the first trial in which vein variation evidence was introduced in court, a father accused of sexual abuse of his daughter walked free despite all the filmic evidence she had provided. “Why?” Black asked the prosecution lawyer afterwards. “Was it that the jury didn’t believe the science? ‘No,’ he replied, and the reason he gave still haunts me: ‘It was because she didn’t cry enough’.”

For all the wisdom of what Black had to say about death, for all her humour and affability, that’s the moment that will stick with me and, judging by the audience’s collective gasp and of shock at such injustice, them too.

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What the audience made of Times journalist Catherine Nixey was far harder to discern. Certainly, she tells a story pithily. The usual consensus about how Christianity took over the Roman world, she said, was that the persecuted early Christians were the good guys and the Romans the endlessly persecuting bad. “As the daughter of a monk and a nun,” she continued, “I know this story better than most.”

She then flipped the picture, to show the early Christians as a statue-smashing, philosopher-lynching death sect obsessed by martyrdom, illiterate nobodies convinced they’d get a better deal in the afterlife. She didn’t mention Islamic State, but she didn’t need to.

Maybe I have exaggerated, but that seems to be precisely what some of the questioners accused Nixey of doing herself. Me? I thought she was sparkily bright, but on reflection I’ll sit this one out.