NCIS agent's book tells darkly funny tale of years as crime scene investigator
Stars and Stripes July 6, 2012
Even at today’s dizzying rate of television crime drama spinoffs, it may be a while before “CSI: Wichita” arrives in prime time.
Should the franchise ever get that far down the list of cities, special agent Laura Merz’s new book might be good for an anecdote or two, but a script faithful to the source material would be impossible.
“Bunny Suits of Death: Tales of a CSI” strips away the TV shows’ flashy technology and stunning plot twists to paint a funnier, occasionally nausea-inducing and ultimately, far more human picture of life as a crime scene investigator.
It is the first published book by Merz, who spent the last three years as a Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, and will soon take the same position for the Navy in Naples, Italy.
The book’s account of Merz’s first few years in law enforcement with the Wichita, Kan., police department is more fish-out-of-water tragicomedy than gritty “CSI” mystery.
Merz, a self-described hippie-turned-cop, lands in Kansas fresh out of Columbia University in New York City. She finds that while she has the skills to be an investigator, she is unprepared for the human drama unfolding at those first scenes.
“Almost every crime scene you go to, you’re meeting someone on potentially the worst day of their life,” Merz said recently, prior to unveiling her book at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
Like many professionals who encounter death and human cruelty on a regular basis, Merz develops a dark sense of humor to cope. The odd mix of compassion and comedy comes through when Merz must photograph a man who burned himself in a way that ensured he would never procreate, with a chemical used to make crystal meth.
The man kept a vat of stolen anhydrous ammonia, which is normally sealed under high pressure, shut by sitting on top of it while riding in the back of a pickup truck, until the truck hit a bump.
The burn victim, “who had probably inhabited the shallow end of the gene pool … had finally gotten himself out of it altogether,” Merz wrote. “And better yet, lived to tell the tale.”
Along with stories about a victim impaled by a replica of a Klingon weapon, and another of maggots performing unexpected gymnastic feats, Merz discusses the famous TV show about her profession.
“The CSI Effect,” as it is called in the forensic science field, has raised juror expectations of physical evidence during trials, Merz said.
“The jury expects it to be a revelation with every fingerprint, and that’s just not the case,” Merz said.
The Wichita Police Department has never had a digitized fingerprint enlarge on a big screen and instantly match with the mug shot of a suspect, Merz noted.
Arrests were far more likely to come from examination of a scene, logical deduction and personal interviews. When a rare quality fingerprint could be found, it was fed to an FBI database, which spat out 10 possible suspects.
“We had a 1980s monitor, so it was a black screen with green letters,” Merz said. “We ran very few fingerprints because the FBI charges for every fingerprint you send — and we had a budget.”
Merz’s book is available for the Kindle at Amazon.com. Print copies are expected to go on sale in July.