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Why forensic scientists won’t eat cauliflower cheese

Forensic scientists won’t eat cauliflower cheese because it smells the same as a corpse, new memoir reveals

  • Patricia Wiltshire’s memoir reveals gruesome details of life as a forensic scientist
  • She reveals she won’t eat cauliflower cheese as the smell is the same as a corpse
  • In the mortuary, incidentally, stomach contents are removed with a soup ladle, according to the new book

MEMOIR  

TRACES

by Patricia Wiltshire (Bonnier £20, 294 pp) 

Top tip: if you want to bury someone you’ve just killed, avoid the summer months — the stench will give you away.

Winter is far better, when it is too cold ‘for bluebottles to be searching for sites to lay their eggs’, so the smell of death will be delayed. This attracts foxes and badgers, who dig up and reveal the evidence, which is always found by dog walkers.

When we are dead, our bodies still teem with life. The skin can twitch and react to light for at least 18 hours.

As the blood settles, the system fills with carbon dioxide and cells release enzymes to break down the tissues. Bacteria and yeasts proliferate and ferment, aiding the processes of decomposition.

‘Your dead body,’ forensic scientist Patricia Wiltshire explains jauntily, ‘is a rich and vibrant paradise for microbes.’ Insects, birds and worms can’t wait to feast upon a corpse.

Top tip: if you want to bury someone you’ve just killed, avoid the summer months — the stench will give you away. Still from Silent Witness

One thing you can say about Pat Wiltshire — she has a strong stomach. ‘I can vividly remember having my arms full with a cloth-wrapped dismembered leg as I walked down the corridor of the Charing Cross Hospital,’ she says.

It never troubles her to come across blood-soaked carpets — these are meat and drink to our Pat. Sherlock Holmes would have embraced her as a soulmate.

In the mortuary, incidentally, stomach contents are removed with a soup ladle. The only food that Pat can’t abide is cauliflower cheese, as it smells of butyric acid and hydrogen sulphide, ‘the same smell as a corpse’.

Our author’s particular field of expertise, as an ‘environmental archaeologist’ trained to doctoral level in botany, is to look at the residue of leaves, ferns and bark at crime scenes and to pinpoint hidden paths and the location of shallow graves.

Uniquely able to analyse microscopic fungal spores, grains of pollen, soil smears and bonfire ash harvested from clothes, boots, tools and pedals of cars, Pat is hired by the police to discover ‘the tell-tale signs that reveal you were not where you said you were’.

Garments, garden forks and torches can carry a heavy pollen load, which, to the naked eye, ‘is utterly invisible’.

MEMOIR TRACES by Patricia Wiltshire (Bonnier £20, 294 pp)

Confronted with Pat’s incontrovertible evidence, killers usually confess, and the taxpayer is saved the costs of a lengthy Old Bailey trial. To identify criminal suspects, Pat first has to attend the grisly scenes in woodlands, cellars, ditches and ‘lonely motorway lay-bys’. Back at the laboratory, she scrubs and washes the samples she has collected from the body or grave and sieves the silty residue, so they can be ‘centrifuged down to concentrated pellets’.

Slides are examined under powerful microscopes. It is necessary to wear protective clothing, gloves and a mask, as not only is there always the possibility of cross-contamination, upon which defence lawyers pounce, but the chemicals used are also hazardous.

Many will dissolve bones if accidentally spilt on the skin, and the lungs if inhaled.

Pat’s innovation was to retrieve and analyse pollen from the nasal cavities of the dead. As the spores adhere to hair roots, Pat is a dab hand at examining scalps, too.

Her cases involve harrowing detail of violence and torture, so she is not willing to specify names and places. She did unmask Soham murderer Ian Huntley, but I know this only because I gave her a Google.

Instead, the anecdotes are rather generalised: girls who vanish, Chinese Triad killings (‘his torso was found in a suitcase in a Hertfordshire stream’) and gang warfare victims.

I had to keep reminding myself that Pat Wiltshire’s sphere is not horror movie special-effects. Her tales involve real events, which are the consequences of human suffering, sadness and depravity.

Traces is rather mesmerising, and I can say categorically that I will never eat cauliflower cheese again.

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