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The Plot Thickens : Gumshoes Help Mystery Writers Keep Track of Crime's Complexities


Now that DNA has joined OD and DOA as part of the MO of homicide detectives, mystery writers have a whole new set of ABCs to keep track of.


That is why 32 of them are huddling this weekend with murder investigators, prosecutors and forensic pathologists above a candy store in Universal City in hopes of learning the lingo of law enforcement, 1990s-style.

The crime writers want their future novels and screenplay mysteries to read more like coverage of the O.J. Simpson case than Mickey Spillane.

In fact, the Simpson case could represent something of a turning point in crime writing, according to Barry Fisher, director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department crime lab and organizer of the two-day crime-writing seminar.

Criminal investigative procedures will be on trial along with Simpson. And television viewers and newspaper readers will experience it all.

"Mystery writers will have a tougher time winging it after this," warned Fisher, 50, of Chatsworth. "In the past, a lot of criminal investigative procedures have been glossed over by writers."

For openers, Fisher said, he and others involved in homicide investigations should be called "criminalists."

"You don't want to say 'criminologist.' That's a dead giveaway that you don't know the jargon. I saw the word used this morning in the L.A. Times. Criminologists deal with the social sciences. I don't want to read any of your stuff and catch that."

The writers paid $145 each to attend the 12-hour seminar, conducted as a UCLA extension course. Along with Fisher, lecturers included sheriff's homicide Detective Sgt. Stanley White, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marissa Batt and Dr. Eva Heuser, a deputy coroner. It will conclude today with an afternoon tour of the Sheriff's Department crime lab.

Participants included published novelists as well as fledgling authors and screenplay writers--engineers, legal secretaries and a bank examiner. Two editors from a chain of Los Angeles-area weekly newspapers were also there. "We report a lot of crime news," explained one of them.

Everyone scribbled furiously as White offered an irreverent, back-room view of police work. And they laughed when he related that one well-known mystery writer spends so much time hanging out in the sheriff's Homicide Bureau looking for material that detectives feel "he's bleeding us dry."

The writers peppered Fisher with questions about DNA procedures and the increasing impact that scientific evidence is playing in murder investigations. He explained that a national databank containing some criminals' DNA characteristics may be coming soon.

But Fisher warned that television watchers will find the Simpson trial filled with "some of the most boring, arcane testimony you'll ever come across. It isn't going to be highly riveting like 'L.A. Law'--you'll need a medical book at your side."

Some of the writers indicated that such a book might be valuable to have at their side when they sit down to start hammering out their next screenplay or novel.

"The Simpson case shows there's really a lot of public interest in detail," said Debbie Clark, a Los Angeles real estate lawyer who has quit her job to write a murder mystery.

Barbara Bornstein, a securities company secretary from Santa Monica who is also writing a murder mystery, said readers are coming to expect authors to be exact when they are describing police procedures.

"I've come with a lot of questions. Like, is there an international computer network for fingerprints?" she said.

UCLA extension spokesman John Watson said interest has been so high in Fisher's "Investigative Techniques for Crime Writers" lectures that a six-night version is planned for January.

As for Fisher, he cautioned the writers not to get too caught up in minutiae.

"If you have a lousy story, a crummy plot, what I'm telling you about DNA and such won't help." After all, he said, a poorly written murder mystery is a crime.

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