As the tite states, Fingerprints details "the origins of crime detection and the murder case that launched forensic science." The case in question involved the 1902 homicides of Thomas and Ann Farrow outside London. The motive was robbery and a fingerprint was found on a metal cash box in the victims' room. This single fingerprint came to have an important place in history. It was the first such evidence used in a jury trial to convict and hang men found guilty of murder.
Author Colin Beavan provides a timeline of fingerprint research and loosely follows the latter portion of it in his book. Originally, fingerprints were used for general identification purposes of a non-criminal nature. Experiments were performed in an effort to conclude that no two people in the world share the same fingerprint.
There were several people separately studying the human fingerprint. As with any branch of study, competition between scientists was intense and egos got in the way of a common goal.
Beavan introduces the main players in the race to claim credit for discovery of fingerprint benefits. He describes the decades of nasty politics and dishonesty involved. At the same time, he details the gradual inclusion of fingerprint use in criminal cases. The subject goes from "scientific palmistry" to bona fide evidence.
Dr. Henry Faulds, a foremost pioneer in this field, was not given earned credit thanks to some dishonest colleagues. It seems that part of Beavan's motivation for writing this book is to give the late Dr. Faulds the honor he's due. As with all historical events, it's easy to re-write them in one's favor. However, I tend to believe Beavan is correcting an injustice here, rather than trying to get the reader to believe his version of the story. Beavan provides a balanced account of the development of fingerprint science, and for that I respect him as a writer.
The author describes his work as a "popular rather than academic account of the history of fingerprints." I must admit that Beavan's idea of "popular" reading differs from my own. Though the annotations are limited, there is still a college textbook feel to the account. Readers with an interest in criminal justice or forensic science will enjoy Beavan's work. I happen to like these subjects and the book held my attention cover to cover.
However, Fingerprints is not a nail-biter. Rather, it is an account of the history of fingerprints. The author's work is crammed with facts and interesting anecdotes. Sometimes I found the wording difficult. Therefore I suggest you read this book when you are able to devote 100% of your attention to its contents. This is not the book to read by the pool when you are responsible for a gaggle of children. Stick a Danielle Steel novel in your beach bag instead.
On that note, if you're the type of reader who prefers general fiction, then this book probably isn't for you. This is a non-fiction documentation of fingerprint history. If you crave an exciting ending full of passion and intrigue, then you are at the wrong section of the store.
Personally, I enjoyed the book, as I knew what to expect ahead of time. Beavan's case was relatively easy to comprehend. In the end, I felt I learned something new here, and that's the true success of Fingerprints.