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Be Afraid and the Forensic Art of Facial Reconstruction

Hello, all! So happy you are joining me for my “limited series,” Forensic Fridays. I hope you’ll continue join me over the next few weeks as I share info about forensic and law enforcement procedures that have made their way into my books.



forensicsMy love affair with skeletonized bones hasn’t abated since I first started digging into the way they speak for the voiceless victims in murder cases.  I use them as a major plot point in Be Afraid but very differently than I had in earlier books, such as Dying Scream . In Be Afraid I shared what I’d learned about forensic art, in particular sculpting that recreates the likeness of the deceased.


BEAFRAID2A forensic artist begins the process by stripping the skull so that it is clean of biological material. Then the artist glues small plastic markers on it.  Each marker represents the dept of the skin based upon a standard table of measurements created by forensic anthropologists. Based on sex and race, the markers serve as landmarks that indicate the skin’s thickness at various facial points.


Dr._Maziar_Ashrafian, University of Dundee, ScotlandOnce the markers are in place, the artist creates the muscle fibers of the face and, finally, the skin.  This is as much art as it is science as all involved are relying on the artist to give the bust human qualities the person would have had in life.


Following is facial reconstructionist Jenna Thompson at work at the behest of  two of Be Afraid‘s Morgan siblings, Rick and Georgis, as she struggles to identify the remains of a child buried as long as three decades ago in Nashville’s Centennial Park–


“The skull was no longer naked. It was now covered in small plastic markers. She’d spent most of yesterday cutting and gluing twenty-one markers onto the skull’s forehead, cheekbones, and chin . . .

She set down her cup and reached for a sheet of transparent paper, which she placed over the demarcated skull.  Carefully, she taped the paper to her drawing board so that it would not shift. 


Moving her head from side to side she reached for a drawing pencil. Her work was part science and part guesswork. She had scientific formulas that determined the sides of the eyes and bone markers to help shape the nose and lips but, as with any artist, she made judgment calls throughout the process. Her judgments would add the spark of life that made the sketch all the more real.


Pencil point at the midpoint of the eye, she began to draw the ligaments that controlled eye movement.  She worked for nearly an hour just on the basic underlying structure of the eyes. And then she moved to the lids. The upper lids curved slightly more that the lower and dipped partially over the iris of the eye. Soon a set of colorless eyes stared back at her and she found herself setting down the pencil.


Someone out there knew this little girl and wondered and worried about her her. Someone had not forgotten her.


Soon she would no longer be a little lost girl . . .


‘We’ll find out who did this to you and bring you home. I promise.'”


*Shown above, Dr. Maziar Ashrafian Bonab, currently Senior Lecturer, University of Portsmouth, U.K.
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Who Are You?


Hello, all! So happy you are joining me for my “limited series,” Forensic Fridays. I hope you’ll continue join me over the next few weeks as I share info about forensic and law enforcement procedures that have made their way into my books.



stock-photo-19672810-crime-scene-tapeMy medical examiner in Cover Your Eyes, Be Afraid and I’ll Never Let You Go is Dr. Miriam Heller. While I don’t usually go into vivid detail about the autopsies she performs, there’s no denying the importance of this fact finding research.


Despite what many may think from portrayals on television Mary Burton I'LL NEVER LET YOU GO cover hi resand in films (a.k.a. the CSI effect), toxicology reports and DNA tests are not obtained instantly but can take weeks and months to get back from overburdened laboratories.  And that oh-so-sophisticated technology that we all find so fascinating is just too expensive– more often than not out of the reach of the average police department and medical examiner’s office.


Here’s Dr. Heller at work in Be Afraid. (Warning: Gruesome Details)


“Detective Bishop nodded. “Dr. Heller, How goes it? Looking lovely as always.”


An amused brow arched as she removed rubber gloves from her white physician’s jacket and moved to a wall of refrigerated body-storage cabinets. She donned the gloves and opened the second from the left. Inside lay a draped figure. A sheet covered the body’s shriveled flesh and sinew eaten by the fire.  She pulled back the sheet and revealed a blackened skull attached to a torso, singed black. Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 10.31.43 AMHands and feet had been burned away as had the arms to the elbow and the legs to the knees.


“Your victim was a female. I was able to take X-rays and as luck would have it, she had a hip implant that had a serial number on it. I’ve sent off a request to the manufacturer for a name of the doctor who implanted it.”


“She was older?”


“No. Mid-thirties. My guess is the implant came after an accident.”


“Good work,” Rick said.


cyesmall“Your victim also didn’t die as a result of the fire. She was shot in the head. Judging by the hole made by the bullet in her right temple, I’d say she was shot at close range.” Dr. Heller reached for an evidence bag, which contained a single slug. “She would’ve died instantly.”


Rick took the bag and held it up. He guessed the gun had been a .45 caliber. “The fire was set to hide the forensic evidence?”


Bishop shrugged. “Or because the killer liked fires.”




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Burning Down the House

Hello, all! So happy you are joining me for my “limited series,” Forensic Fridays. I hope you’ll continue join me over the next few weeks as I share info about forensic and law enforcement procedures that have made their way into my books.


stock-photo-19672810-crime-scene-tapeIn Be Afraid, Detectives investigate a murder scene in a home that seems to have intentionally been set on fire.  Burn patterns at an arson scene can tell the investigators a lot about the fire— how it was started, where it began and  how it traveled.  Often human remains can melt in such intense heat.  I was fascinated by some of the things I learned  at the 2014 Writers Police Academy. Not only did a fire investigator speak to us about fire, he took BEAFRAID2us to a back lot where we were able to witness the controlled burn of a mock room.


Me at Writers Police Academy 2015

Me at Writers Police Academy 2015

Writers often think that when a room catches on fire there’s still time forcharacters to carry on long conversations— something I was guilty of in a rough draft.  In reality, fire moves very, very fast.  Our controlled burn roomwas consumed in smoke within minutes and completely destroyed in 12 minutes.


This conversaton from Be Afraid takes place between Nashville PD homicide Detective Rick Morgan and the arson investigator at the scene of the house fire where a body has been discovered.


Inspector Murphy shoved out a breath. “No doubt about it.” He pointed to several sections of the ruins that had all but disintegrated.  “Those spots are ignition points where our arsonist poured lots of accelerant, likely diesel or kerosene.  As you can see, we have multiple ignition points, but if you look over here where the body was found, there’s quite a bit of damage.  That area was the bedroom.”


Rick studied what had been the bedroom and could make out the faint impression of a body. High heat not only seared flesh, but melted the body’s fat and ate into bone turning it to ash and dust.


“At this point, I can’t tell you how the person died,” Murphy said. “Witnesses  tell me the house was vacant except for the stage furniture. A neighbor was keeping an eye on the house. I don’t know if this is a suicide or a murder. Can’t even tell you at this point if the victim was a male or female. The fire was deliberate and intended to obliterate the house.”


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Skeletonized Remains in Be Afraid and Dying Scream . . .


Hello, all! Today is the start of my “limited series,” Forensic Fridays. I hope you’ll join me for the next seven weeks as I share info about forensic and law enforcement procedures that have made their way into my books. Welcome to week one!



stock-photo-19672810-crime-scene-tapeSeveral years ago Sisters in Crime held a weekend long Forensics University which I attended.  One of my favorite sessions was led by an anthropologist who worked with the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s office.  Her specialties included identifying bones.  I was fascinated and went on to read extensively about bones. I even drove to D.C. to visit the Smithsonian’s Written in Bone exhibit. And I ended up with two sets of bones in Dying Scream.


Facts that found their way into that book include–

  • The skull can tell you the deceased’s sex, race and approximate age.
  • Teeth give clues to nutrition and general health.
  • You can estimate height from a femur bone.
  • Bone size can hint at the departed’s profession–work requiring repetitive motions builds strong muscles and leaves a pattern on the bone.


Dying Scream’s bones came from a family graveyard dating back a century and those of two people who’d died in recent years.


Bones play an even more crucial role in Be Afraid.  Detectives called to the burial scene at Nashville’s Centennial Park know immediately that they are dealing with the remains of a child and that the child has been dead a long time. The young victim’s Mary Burton BE AFRAID cover image med resskull still has the lower jaw intact and the medical examiner sees baby teeth still in place. The number and position of the  teeth lead to an approximate age–under six.  Most children lose their front teeth by that age.


There is also a delicate ridge of bones above the eye sockets suggesting the victim was female.  Males generally have a thicker ridge.  A narrow nasal cavity suggests Caucasian.  Brittle bones point to malnutrition. And an indentation in their small victim’s skull suggests death by blunt force trauma.


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Celebrating Labor Day with a Giveaway!

Mary Burton BE AFRAID cover image med resHappy Labor Day Weekend!  I hope you’ve got some fun plans on hand.  I’m celebrating with lots of company, the last big barbecue of the season and a new giveaway.  Two books!  Cover Your Eyes, the first of my novels featuring  the Morgans, Nashville’s leading law enforcement family, and the follow up, Be AfraidCYE


Cover Your Eyes is Deke’s story and Be Afraid is Rick’s.  I’m proud to say they were both USA Today bestsellers and Be Afraid also appeared on the the New York Times list.  Siblings Alex and Georgia will have their stories told in I’ll Never Let You Go (10/27) and Vulnerable (3/29/16).



Please enter below and if you’ve already enjoyed these books take a chance to win anyway.  You can pass them along to one of your favorite book lovers!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

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