Incorporating Forensics in Your Mystery Plot by DJ Swykert

Incorporating Forensics in Your Mystery Plot by DJ Swykert

Several years ago, Carolyn Jenks, founder of the Carolyn Jenks Agency in Boston, told me she believed forensics in a crime story was the best way to hook a mystery reader. The success of the CSI television productions appears to support Carolyn’s theory. With her suggestion in mind, I wrote The Death of Anyone based on a little known DNA search technique called a Familial DNA Search. 

I first heard of the technique while working as a 911 operator in 2006. It came up in a conversation with a CSI investigator in our department. I thought at the time it would make an interesting premise for a book. Listening to Carolyn’s thoughts on forensics a couple of years later convinced me. 

But you don’t have to be a homicide detective, CSI or forensics expert to use the science in a story. Tom Clancy became famous for his espionage and military science stories. Was Tom with the FBI, CIA, or a scientist? No, he was an insurance salesman. Everything you need to know Tom discovered you can research for yourself on the internet. Want to know about Familial DNA? Here’s a link that will inform you of everything you need to know about the technique, and its legal ramifications. You can write it into a plotline like an expert, just as Tom Clancy wrote about nuclear submarines in The Hunt for Red October without ever having set foot on a submarine.

In my fictional story, The Death of Anyone, Detroit Detective Bonnie Benham has been transferred from working undercover in narcotics to homicide and is working the case of a killer of adolescent girls. She is a straight forward investigator who describes herself as a blonde with a badge and a gun. CSI collects DNA evidence from the scene of the latest victim, which had not been detected on the other victims. But no suspect turns up in the FBI database. Due to the notoriety of the crimes a task force is put together with Bonnie as the lead detective, and she implores the D.A. to use an as yet unapproved type of DNA Search in an effort to identify the killer.  

In reality, the technique of investigating those with a similar DNA profile to the actual profile left at the crime scene has proved to be controversial, especially since LAPD used it to catch Lonnie David Franklin, the infamous Grim Sleeper, in the summer of 2010 in Los Angeles. Investigating Franklin’s son led them to investigate Lonnie Franklin. But there was no direct DNA evidence that linked Lonnie to the crime scene until they obtained a sample from him after his arrest. Lonnie David Franklin, aka The Grim Sleeper, will be the first person in the U.S. to ever stand trial for murder based on this type of evidence, and its admissibility issues will be thoroughly tested by defense attorneys. These are the same issues my investigators encounter in The Death of Anyone.  

The use of forensics in writing your mystery or crime story, I think, lends authenticity to the story. It’s become an essential tool of homicide departments and is something to consider when you develop the plot of your next mystery.

Fascinating! Thanks for this great article, DJ!


Guest Blogger Bio


DJ Swykert is a former 911 operator writing fiction. His work has appeared in The Tampa Review, Detroit News, Coe Review, Monarch Review, the Newer York, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Zodiac Review, Barbaric Yawp and Bull. His books include Children of the Enemy, Alpha Wolves, The Pool Boy’s Beatitude and The Death of Anyone. You can find him at:
He is a wolf expert.


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