Saturday, February 23, 2008

What freaks out a CSI?

Elizabeth Becka (Guest blogger)

Our guest is the author of Trace Evidence and the just-released sequel, Unknown Means, both featuring crime scene investigator Evelyn James. When she isn’t writing thrillers, Elizabeth Becka is a real-life forensic specialist with the Cape Coral, Florida, Police Department. She previously worked as a crime scene investigator in Cleveland, the setting of her novels. Visit her web site at

Everybody’s afraid of something.

My heroine is a forensic scientist with the coroner’s office who investigates, of course, homicides. (Coroner = victims are dead.) But as part of her ‘other duties as assigned,’ she also investigates suicides, traffic deaths and industrial accidents. One such industrial accident has occurred in the salt mine which exists (I swear I am not making this up) 1800 feet below the surface of Cleveland, Ohio. Under Lake Erie, to be precise.

There’s just one problem. My heroine is claustrophobic.

So am I.

The only thing that ever scared me about working at the coroner’s office was the cooler—the large refrigerated room where the deceased, on gurneys, were stored. I hated the cooler. I couldn’t care less that it was full of dead bodies, that didn’t bother me a bit. What bothered me was that there were no windows. (I hated the cooler at my first job at an ice cream store too, and the most dangerous item there was a bag of Spanish peanuts…of course, the only dangerous thing in the coroner’s office cooler is possible exposure to TB.)

I rarely needed to go into the cooler, but occasionally it became necessary and I did it. I even shut the door behind me, because otherwise the refrigeration would flow into the hallway, wasting energy and taxpayer dollars.

There were only two things I ever refused to do at the coroner’s office: clean out the crypts, and ride the freight elevator without a light in it.

I didn’t like the freight elevator to begin with. It was one of those barbaric contraptions with the inner wall composed of grating that you had to pull shut after closing the outer door so that you could see the wall move when the elevator went up or down. At least you could have seen the wall move if you kept your eyes open, which I didn’t. It had one light bulb in the ceiling, which would occasionally burn out.

The deep freeze, a 20 x 10 room kept at minus 70 and used for storing old biological samples and bodies who weren’t going anywhere soon, had two light bulbs. The rear one had burnt out years before and had not been replaced, since the maintenance staff did not want to spend any more time in there than the rest of us, and the front one would burn out regularly too. I would go into the deep freeze armed with just a flashlight. But the perfectly empty freight elevator, no.

Please don’t point out that not having a light bulb scarcely made a difference if I kept my eyes closed anyway. It did, and you know it.

This isn’t quite as wimpy as it sounds, since most staff would consider saying no to my boss far more perilous than a silly dark freight elevator, but even she knew that you could only yank a dog’s chain so many times before it turns and bites, and did not push me.

The other thing I refused to do had nothing to do with claustrophobia. It was to clean out the old crypts (the small door and sliding tray system seen on TV, long since discontinued and used only for storage by the time I arrived there). That was out of the question because I had been traumatized about such crypts when I was a child, from the mere preview of a horror movie that made much use of surprises behind those doors. It appeared to be an utterly terrifying movie, at least to a small child, but in reality it must have been truly lousy since it doesn’t even show up in the Internet Movie Database. Doesn’t matter. The damage had been done. I would help clean out the crypts. Just not by myself.

The point is, a vital part of any suspense tale is facing something frightening, and much more so when it’s something the character finds personally frightening.

So readers are enjoying the subplot about the salt mine. It’s an interesting piece of industrial engineering, and it’s an odd role reversal: We’re used to seeing Evelyn walk up to a decomposed body without batting an eye while everyone around her is freaking out. Now Evelyn is, inwardly, freaking out, but to everyone else it’s just another day at work. 1800 feet down with a single elevator for egress? Sure, what’s odd about that? We’re actually under the lake? Yes, but there’s 1700 feet of stone between us and the water. There, that should make you feel better.


Everyone’s afraid of something.


paul lamb said...

A fish out of water story, eh? I could see a competent forensics officer struggling with a mystery totally out of her element. All of her talent and training does not prepare her for her antagonist (whether it is her own claustrophobia or the psyche of another's complicated mind she must grapple with). Those kinds of stories are most compelling to me.

Darlene Ryan said...

Just reading your post made the hairs come up on the back of my neck. I'm claustrophobic as well and when you mentioned the freight elevator you took me back to a converted warehouse I once worked in. Still gives me the creeps when I think about it. I've put Unknown Means on my To Buy list. The thought of the scenes in the salt mine give me the shivers but I can't wait to read the book.

Joyce said...

I can't wait to read this book. I'm not usually claustrophobic unless it involves water. I don't like going in water over my head. But I'm sure a salt mine under Lake Erie would do me in. Just the thought of all that water overhead. Yikes!