By Mike Crawmer
I admit it: I watch way too much TV, albeit it mostly of the elevating kind—you know, PBS, Discovery , Science, History channel, FoodTV, etc.
Not much of what I learn from all this watching is very practical. Sure, it’s nice to know that provenance increases the value of your family heirlooms (not that I have any), but what use can I make of the knowledge that it was their mastery of the horse than enabled the Mongol hordes to overrun much of Asia and eastern Europe?
Then, a few weeks ago, a segment of the Science channel’s “Beyond Tomorrow,” a program that showcases cutting-edge technology, got my attention. Now, here was something that could have a real impact on me (and, I bet, some of you, fellow mystery writers).
If what this program predicts comes to pass, CSI, Quincy ME and Dr. G: Medical Examiner will seem as outdated to future viewers as a silent film is to us now. (Needless to say, Kay Scarpetta and others like her will be just as anachronistic.) Why, these future viewers will ask between smirks, did Gil and Catherine and Quincy spend so much time dissecting, weighing, measuring, testing, and analyzing when, as everyone knows, autopsies are done by machines in just a couple minutes?
Yep, it seems that researchers in Sweden have developed a new CT-based scanning system that produces a vivid, non-invasive autopsy. Just slip the body through the special scanner and, voila, a few minutes and 6 gigabytes of information later the investigator has a complete 3-dimensional image of every bone, tissue, sinew, ligament, capillary and organ, what’s right with them, what’s wrong with them.
Just think of it: No more messy lab tables and livers, hearts, brains and stomach contents sloshing around in stainless steel bowls. No more too-eager assistants and queasy detectives rushing out of the laboratory, hand over mouth. No more idiosyncratic MEs peering with their one good eye into a cavity or scratching their manes of unkempt grey hair with bloody fingernails. No more elegantly written autopsy reports with their references to obscure southeast Asian diseases transmitted by the feces of some endangered bat species.
In short, a brave new technological world—all dull and boring and straightforward—where a machine sucks out another bit of the soul of our imagination.
Right now I’m finishing a mystery, set, ironically, in Sweden. Among its cast is a cantankerous forensic pathologist—not quite central casting but almost. He was a character, but of more interest to me was the various detectives’ reactions to him and, to them, his grisly job. That dynamic was grist for the writer’s imagination and skill, providing the author with lots of opportunities for character development and insight.
This new autopsy technology, if it becomes commonplace (and I’m sure it eventually will if only because it’s more economical than the current system), would relegate the pathologist to the dustbin of history. Detectives wouldn’t have to worry about witnessing the next autopsy or fight with the coroner for faster turnaround on vital information. All they’d have to do is drop off the body, sip a decaffeinated latte and munch a granola bar, then, presto, there’s the report they need.
Technology is great, but all these advances threaten to sap fiction of its spirit. Not an original thought, I know, just one more thing—like the collapse of the financial system, the presidential election, global warming, the price of gas—that I can add to my list of ongoing worries.