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Perhaps the most startling thing we learn in this terrific book by Colin Beavan is that fingerprint identification was not originally developed in order to figure out who had committed crimes, but to help police figure out who they had actually arrested.  Seems that in the 19th Century, criminals would routinely avoid the stiffer penalties for repeat offenders by simply lying about who they were.  Their deceptions were only exposed if beat cops, specifically stationed in courtrooms and jailhouses for the purpose, happened to recognize them and expose their real identities.    It's details like this, and the fascinating ways in which developing ideas about penology intertwined with modern forensic techniques that really lift this book a cut above most true crime fodder.

In addition, Beavan is able to draw upon a cast of characters--seemingly out of Dickens or Wilkie Collins or even Sherlock Holmes--and a wide array of dramatic situations--bureaucratic infighting, gruesome murders, a tragic case of mistaken identity and false imprisonment, academic fraud and courtroom drama--to keep the story humming along like a good Victorian thriller.  At the center of the story is Dr. Henry Faulds, who did more than any other man to develop and proselytize for fingerprinting, but who was cheated out of the glory for this innovation by Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, who was born to the manor and felt no compunction about claiming credit for the good work of "lesser" men.  And the whole story is framed by a "shocking tragedy at Deptford," a 1905 robbery and double-murder in which the only piece of evidence was a single bloody fingerprint found on a cashbox at the scene.

Colin Beavan, who has previously written for magazines like Esquire and Atlantic Monthly, handles the wide cast of characters deftly and explains the underlying science clearly.  There are also numerous helpful illustrations and a pretty good website companion to the book (  The book is being marketed as similar to Longitude and The Professor and the Madman, and though that is high company, it's entirely worthy of the comparison.


Grade: (A)


See also:

True Crime
Book-related and General Links:
    -Book Site :
    -BOOK SITE :  Fingerprints (Hyperion)
    -ESSAY : Underwater Daredevils :   Divers compete to see who can go deepest on just one breath -- and who can survive the yet-more-perilous ascent to air (Colin Beavan, May 1997, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Lock Up Your Content (Colin Beavan, Dec 11 2000,
    -ESSAY : Smoking Gun's Men in Black (Colin Beavan, Wired)
    -PROFILE : First Success : Colin Beavan's Fingerprints : "For me, research was the easy part because you know you're getting results. And so you procrastinate the scary part, which is the actual sitting down and writing the story by convincing yourself that you're being productive by doing more research ... I researched for seven months."  (Kelly Nickell, from the May 2001 issue of Writer's Digest)
    -PROFILE : Book probes origins of fingerprinting (Robert Lovinger, South Coast Today)
    -REVIEW : of Fingerprints (J. Kingston Pierce, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Fingerprints (Michael Sims, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Fingerprints (Robyn Glazer,
    -REVIEW : of Fingerprints (Daniel Stashower, Washington Post)

    -ESSAY : The Myth of Fingerprints : A forensic science stands trial (Simon Cole, Lingua Franca)