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Lisa Black

interviewed by Hilary Williamson, November 2011

Lisa Black is a latent fingerprint examiner for the Cape Coral, Florida Police Department and a former forensic scientist for the Cleveland coroner's office. She lends her expertise in crime scene fingerprinting and photography, latent print processing and comparison, and blood spatter analysis. A member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Black has testified in over fifty homicide trials.

Lisa is the author of three previous thrillers, starring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean in Cleveland: Trail of Blood, Evidence of Murder, and Takeover. Now, someone is killing criminal defense lawyers at a Ritz-Carlton conference in her heart-stopping fourth in the series, Defensive Wounds.

Q: Your website tells us, 'I spent the happiest five years of my life in a morgue', at the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office. What made it such a great place to work?

A: I said I was happy there. I didn't say it was a great place to work ... let's see.

Cons: Exhausting. Dirty. Underpaid and overworked. The questionable supervisory ability of certain people. Smelly.

Pros: A huge variety of forensic techniques put to use and a new story every day. It was fascinating.

Q: Like your character, Theresa MacLean, you work in forensics. How much is she modeled on your own life experiences?

A: Almost completely. I like to say she's me, except she's stronger, faster, smarter and divorced.

Q: Is the tension between police officers and defense lawyers often as strong as portrayed in Defensive Wounds?

A: Yes and no. It's really difficult to feel neutral toward someone who feels it's their job to harrass you. But on the whole anybody who lasts in any of these positions, CSI, cop or lawyer, learns better than to take things personally. There are defense attorneys I just want to hug, and there are prosecutors I want to slug. I'm sure many of them feel the same way about me. It's a situation where everyone is pressured, everyone has too much to do and not enough time to do it in, where you can end up losing sleep over literally anything from 'why didn't I find the bullet casing?' to 'did I use black ink or blue ink to sign that form?' and no one feels like spending hours and hours sitting around the courthouse. So it's never going to be a happy gathering even under the best of circumstances.

Q: Do defense lawyers really go to the lengths portrayed here (e.g. substituting evidence) to win a case?

A: No, happily. At least I've never heard of that. Though I remember one case where the defense attorneys--allegedly--moved a piece of furniture at a crime scene just before the jury visited the place, in order to bolster their client's claim of self-defense.

Q: Have you ever had to collect forensic evidence at a hotel? You make it sound like quite a challenge just to decide what to select.

A: Deciding what to collect is the most nervewracking part of crime scene. I swear that's why they're always in rich people's homes on TV shows--how hard is it to find a bullet casing when the maid just vacuumed that morning? Try working in a house that hasn't been cleaned in the last decade. Most people have stuff. We have to look at a room when we don't know exactly what has happened there and do our best to decide which objects were or were not involved in the crime. On top of that we only have one chance to get everything. Once we're done and that scene is 'released', we can't go back without endangering the chain of custody.

Q: Like most of her forensic mystery peers, Theresa MacLean seems to go well beyond the boundaries of her job description in attempting to solve cases? Does this happen only in fiction?

A: Yes. She spends a lot more time away from the lab than I would. But I try to keep it a little more realistic than TV in the biggest ways--the pathologists don't come to the scene, they're at the office doing autopsies. The cops question witnesses, not Theresa (beyond asking 'where was this when you got here?' and suchlike). She doesn't carry a gun, and she doesn't decide to investigate dark abandoned buildings on her own. At least not on purpose.

Q: The mother/daughter dynamics and emotions in Defensive Wounds seem very real - how did you write this so credibly and with such empathy?

A: I have no idea, because I don't have children. But I come from a large and close-knit family, so I have plenty of examples all around me. And I'm fairly sure that as mother I'd be a bit overprotective and maybe a bit inflexible. But Theresa's daughter is in college now, a little more mature and not so much of a handful, so that makes it easier.

Q: The observation deck action in Defensive Wounds would work well on the big screen - any plans for a movie?

A: I'd love to do a movie. If you know any interested directors, feel free to give them my email!

Q: Can you tell us anything about your next project(s)? Do you plan to delve again into Cleveland's history as you did in Trail of Blood?

A: My husband insists I should tackle the Sam Sheppard case next (which inspired The Fugitive), especially since I worked at the coroner's office when both Sam and Marilyn were exhumed for the civil trial. But I don't think I want to touch that one. It's too divisive. I'd love to explore the growth and decline of the steel industry. I'd also love to bring to life the city at the turn of the last century, when Carnegie and Rockefeller lived on Euclid Avenue (aka 'Millionaire's Row'). That would be a lot of fun.
Find out more about Lisa Black and her books (including the two written under the name Elizabeth Becka) at her Website.
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