Review: 'American Sherlock,' by Kate Winkler Dawson
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Review: 'American Sherlock,' by Kate Winkler Dawson

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"American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI" by Kate Winkler Dawson.

"American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI" by Kate Winkler Dawson. (Penguin Random House/TNS)

"American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI" by Kate Winkler Dawson; G.P. Putnam's Sons (336 pages, $27)

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The latest nonfiction page-turner from Kate Winkler Dawson is really two books, one of which is great. Dawson - whose riveting "Death in the Air" tracked a deadly fog that cloaked London in 1952 - looks at Edward Oscar Heinrich, the Californian who pioneered crime investigation techniques that police still use today.

Blood spatter patterns, fingerprinting, stomach content analysis, specifics of decomposition - Heinrich seems to have been at the forefront of all of it, which Dawson demonstrates in case studies that focus on his splashier work, including failed efforts to nail comic actor Fatty Arbuckle for the death of a starlet. (The journalism professor gets credit for acknowledging the times Heinrich fell short.)

Less successful are the biographical details Dawson uses in an attempt to explain why Heinrich was driven to bring criminals to justice. As too many stories pile up about, for instance, Heinrich's spendthrift son, one can almost hear Dawson's students at the University of Texas parroting her advice: Edit, edit, edit.

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