Ian Rankin in conversation with Prof Sue Black

When Sue Black and Ian Rankin sat down to talk together on Wednesday evening, it really did feel like a conversation.

They might have been on the stage at St Matthew’s Academy, Saltcoats, with an audience of around 250 local people, but the conversation flowed and the topics were wide ranging, around the connections between Ian Rankin, the crime writer, and Prof Sue Black, the forensic anthropologist. They told anecdotes about their lives, discussed people they knew in common and interrupted each other. Occasionally they remembered they had an audience and brought them into the conversation too.

Watch the whole interview

Together they explored the question, “Do crime writers have a responsibility to write good science?” Rankin admitted to adapting procedural facts to strengthen the narrative, but clearly was interested in portraying reality and said that if science was going to be there it should be done well. Sometimes, however, there were barriers.  Rankin told a story about writing his first crime novel while he was still a student. He managed to get an interview with some detectives to discuss his book, but because of similarities between his plot and a real missing person case at the time, he ended up a suspect in the case. The result was that he steered clear of getting too close to the police force again for quite a few years.

Prof Sue Black was chatty, but also challenging. She asked the audience to confess to watching programmes such as CSI and Bones and believing them.  She also presented a warning to be careful about giving away biometric information about themselves such as fingerprint patterns, now commonly used as a way of accessing mobile phones. Identity theft, she said, is the fastest growing crime in the modern world. A PIN number could be change and a bank card replaced, but once your biometric information is stolen, there is no way back from that.

Black was also quick to say that forensics was not just about doing the science, but about being able to present it in court in a way that made sense to the jury.  She talked about the huge responsibility on the scientist to make science understandable and to remain utterly professional under the cross-examination of a defence lawyer, even after hours in the witness box.

The conversation tackled some weighty issues.  Ian Rankin said he has chosen not to write about paedophilia as he had no desire to “get inside the head” of a paedophile. Black retorted that in her profession they had no choice and that some of the most disturbing things that she had seen in her career were from footage that paedophiles had created whilst carrying out their crimes.

The audience didn’t hold back either when it was their turn to ask the questions, with both Black and Rankin attempting to answer the question, “Are people inherently good, or inherently evil?” 

The event was part of the Talk Science @ Irvine Bay series, organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and supported by Irvine Bay.  As a regeneration company, Irvine Bay has been committed to creating new opportunities for jobs and growth in the area and this role extends to inspiring people about the opportunities that science offers. Black spoke about the opportunities in Scotland being there for people of every age – a recent MOOC  (Massive Open Online Course) about forensic science had attracted an audience with an age range of 12 to 91. Age needn’t dim enthusiasm, she said. A major focus of the Talk Science programme is to engage young people.  Ian Rankin spent the afternoon at St Matthew's Academy and spoke to over 200 senior pupils who were delighted to meet such a high profile author.  The Talk Science programme provides schools in the area with the opportunity to invite experts from a very wide range of scientific fields to visit schools and help young people to grasp the opportunities that science presents in Scotland today.