The appeal of a traditional amateur sleuth mystery is that the crime is solved by an everyman (or an everywoman) rather than by a professional detective. The amateur sleuth relies on old-fashioned detection to solve the crime, rather than modern forensics. I was asked one time at a conference, how I deal with forensics in my stories. And I explained that I deal with forensics in much the same way that I deal with sex and violence. I know it happens, but in my books, it happens offstage. But the truth is, even in an amateur sleuth mystery, it is difficult these days to write a credible story without some attention to forensic science. So I was pleased to have an opportunity to spend Tuesday afternoon taking a behind the scenes look at the NJ State Police Ballistics Unit.
The Ballistics Unit, according to the NJ state police website "is responsible for providing technical service to all law enforcement agencies pertaining to the examination and test firing of firearms, including detailed microscopic examinations of discharged bullets, shells and other ammunition related components. Conducting distance determinations, restoration of obliterated serial numbers and entering data into the NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) computerized imaging system. Additionally, members of the Ballistics Unit respond to crime scenes to conduct trajectory analysis and shooting scene reconstruction. They are called upon to provide expert testimony in Municipal, Superior and Federal Courts."
When a policeman in the ballistics unit needs to test fire a gun, and he also want to retrieve the bullet undamaged, he shoots into this water tank. The water slows the bullet to the the extent that it can safely be fired and retrieved, in a fifteen foot long tank (hollow point bullets are fired into cotton, rather than water).
The detective who took us around specifically wanted me to get a shot of the inside of the tank. Yes, that's a rubber ducky floating peacefully in the Ballistic Unit's test tank.
My thanks to the officers of the Ballistics Unit for their gracious hospitality, and to the NY chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, for arranging our crash course in ballistics. I'm not ready to write a police procedural, but the next time Cassie solves a case, when the forensics happen offstage, they'll happen offstage in accurate detail.