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Colin Bevan

Fourth Estate £7.79pbk

Reviewed by Carol Anne Davis

As a reader who is interested in criminal psychology rather than forensics, I didn’t originally intend to review this book. But it opens with a double murder which got me hooked. Thomas and Ann Farrow were found brutally bludgeoned in their Deptford shop in 1902 - and the biggest clue was an oily fingerprint on a money box.

This, then, is the true story of fingerprinting. More tellingly, it’s the story of how various men conspired to rob Henry Faulds of his place in the public record. Faulds began experimenting with fingerprint identification in 1878, ten years before Francis Galton. Yet Galton is more frequently named in the history books.

Fingerprints contains lots of fascinating details about our digit-based autograph but it also looks at human ignorance, human greed and human frailty. Faulds tried numerous times to persuade the police to adopt fingerprinting but they ignored him and many innocent people went to jail. One unfortunate man, who had a criminal doppelganger, spent five years in prison for crimes he did not commit, was freed then rearrested. He was about to go to jail for a second time when his nemesis was found. The public were incensed at the jail time he’d endured so fingerprints were on the judicial menu at last.

Faulds died uncelebrated and in relative penury, and it was 1987 before two American fingerprint experts researched their subject’s history and resurrected his name.

The strapline of Fingerprints suggests that it’s `as gripping as a great crime novel.’ Well, no, it isn’t – but it is an impressively detailed, occasionally moving and unusual read.

Though set in the nineteen and twentieth century, its themes still have resonance today. For example, Faulds warned against using a single fingerprint to condemn a man. The police settled for one, but eventually said they’d demand sixteen points of identification on such a solo print.

But this reviewer can recall a recent case where a man who ran a cash and carry warehouse was found guilty of a house robbery. A stable family man with a large income, he – and everyone who knew him - protested his innocence. He’d been convicted of a single act of burglary as a teenager but had subsequently led a blameless life.

The sole thing linking him to the current house robbery was one of his fingerprints on a jewellery box in the house. It could have been a jewellery box he’d touched whilst wrapping it up for a customer at his cash and carry. He could have picked it up whilst deciding which goods to buy from a warehouse. In short, he’d handled millions of goods as part of his legitimate business and his prints would have been on all of them. Nevertheless he was found guilty and given a lengthy sentence, leaving his wife and little daughter bereft.

Fingerprints at their best avoid the incredibly inaccurate process of witness identification – but they should be used in conjunction with other evidence. We should also remember that their accuracy also relies on the skill of the authority who is reading the print.