"Urge to Kill: How police take homicide from case to court," Martin Edwards

Pros: Case studies; broad overview; neat details; good photos
Cons: Missing information; lack of necessary depth in places; confusing layout
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 9/26/2002
Review copy courtesy of F&W Publications/Writer’s Digest Books

“Urge to Kill: How police take homicide from case to court,” by Martin Edwards, is a book for writers put out by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s meant as a resource, so that someone who wants to include details of a criminal investigation in their stories can get their facts right. Such resource books have become popular along with the mystery novel – the “Howdunit” series, for example, addresses everything from poisons to police procedures to missing persons cases.

“Urge to Kill” is not a huge book. It’s a total of 192 pages, many of which are photos, so it would be unrealistic to expect it to go into great and exhaustive detail. If you’re looking for the thorny depths of the insanity defense or the particulars of an autopsy, for example, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Still, for the most part this book does serve as a good overview for those who just want to get the broad brush-strokes correct.

What Does It Cover, Anyway?

The first chapter launches quickly into “Murder Basics.” “What Is Murder?” takes up a few paragraphs; I was rather surprised to see the complexities of the insanity defense relegated to a single paragraph. Edwards touches on conspiracy, forensic investigation, blood testing, the criminal justice system, the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner, and more. I realize this chapter is meant to be an overview, but sometimes it seemed to move too fast.

Chapter two, “Means to Murder,” discusses the “perfect murder,” detecting the manner of death, various murder weapons both ordinary and strange (animals and bacteria!), fingerprinting, explosives, poison, strangulation, and so on. In each case the author spends a little time on the means of death, a couple of examples, and a few details that a writer might find handy.

Chapter three goes into “Motive.” Why do people commit murder? How does motive help the police to find killers and get convictions? What are common motives? Edwards includes categories of motives with examples of each.

Chapter four gets into the nitty-gritty of “Solving Murders.” There’s handy information on assessing crime scenes, assessing offenders, DNA profiling, psychological profiling, types of evidence, autopsies, time of death, victim identification, search warrants, interview strategies, arrests, and protecting witnesses.

Finally a brief chapter on “Murder Inspired by Fiction” addresses the question of whether or not mystery stories have inspired others to kill. A thorough index wraps up the book, and the end of each chapter includes a handful of one-page case studies. A bibliography of further resources is also included.

The Good

This book gives a good overview of most of the basics, and can help you figure out where you need to go next to do more research. It also includes some really neat details here and there on various things, such as the reliability in real life of various methods of murder, “geographical profiling,” handy checklists (methods, strategies, questions that get asked, signs that a suspect is lying, etc.), and so on.

The photos help to give a good feel for various aspects of a criminal investigation. Obviously they’re going to be a little graphic since this is a book on murder, but they’re never too graphic. (In other words there’s some blood, but no close-ups of guts hanging out. There’s a corpse’s breast, but no genitalia. It’s enough to be helpful without being sensationalistic.)

The case studies are similarly enlightening. Because the main text rarely goes into much depth and detail, the case studies provide necessary examples that help to bring home the reality of the concepts being discussed. Thanks to the 2002 publication, there are some very recent cases included. You’ll see the obligatory studies of Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler, for instance, but then there’s Timothy McVeigh, the Aum cult’s sarin gas attack, and other recent cases. It’s nice to see some non-United States cases included in these. Speaking of which, the book does address some differences between US methods and other countries’, in particular Britain’s, although obviously it can’t cover everything.

Once in a while the author includes information specifically addressing police and forensic issues in the context of mystery-writing, which is particularly helpful. I just wish there was more of this in the book.

The production value of the book is high; the paper is thick and strong and the photos are mostly in color. The author makes most of his information interesting to read; only rarely do things get a bit dry, and that’s probably inevitable with a subject like this. The case studies help to keep things intriguing.

The Bad

I do feel that some complex issues were made to seem much simpler than they are. The difficulty, of course, when writing a broad overview book such as this, is in deciding when it’s time to go into more detail and when it isn’t. I feel that there were definitely times when Edwards erred on the side of too little detail. Edwards also left out little bits of explanation here and there, leaving me confused or lacking the details that would be truly useful when writing. For instance, why does the author specifically mention that fingernail bits should be kept in a paper container? Why is it that police can’t do fiber analysis on very pale clothing? Without the whys and wherefores, details like this are often useless to authors.

There are a couple of stories or summaries where I can tell that the story probably made perfect sense before a crucial sentence or phrase got cut. There are some unclear and confusing wordings, and sometimes Edwards uses examples instead of explaining a general rule, rather than in addition to, which is not entirely helpful.

The Ugly

Every now and then Edwards includes roughly a page of information on a topic related to the chapter at hand, but not worked into the basic layout of the chapter. Unfortunately, the layout job on these sidebars is extremely poor.

Let me explain. A page ends in the middle of a paragraph; no problem. I turn the page. Only I don’t find the rest of the paragraph – I find I’m at the start of a whole new section on a different subject. I’m convinced someone really screwed up. I turn that page, expecting to find more on that subject, only I’m back in the middle of that other paragraph! This was a very poor design decision on someone’s part. These sections should have either been integrated into the chapter, or at least carefully placed between sections so that they didn’t interrupt the flow of reading.

Overall I liked and enjoyed this book. I would have preferred it to have a larger word-count and include more information, possibly by leaving out a few of the ubiquitous photos, but certainly I learned a lot. It probably isn’t a book for the in-depth mystery writer, but it is a book for those writers who occasionally put details of investigations into their stories and want to be authentic. At least the author did include a further reading list, so you’ll know where to look to find more information.

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