Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Robin Burcell, Author & Forensic Artist - Write Now! Vignette

Robin Burcell's biographical sketch for the Desert Sleuths' Write Now! 2010 conference said, "Robin Burcell, author of the Anthony Award winning Kate Gillespie novels, is an FBI-trained forensic artist, and has worked in law enforcement for over two decades as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator.  She is also author of a new series featuring Sydney Fitzpatrick, a forensic artist."  (She is also quite funny when she sits in the back of the room and kibitzes while a fellow author and police officer is speaking.)

Burcell, who was there to talk about Forensic Art 101, began by showing us her two books featuring a forensic artist, Face of a Killer, and Bone Chamber.  Then, she gave us a little background.  Burcell was the first female officer for her department in Lodi, California.  So, in her first series, she saw that San Francisco had no women in homicide.  She thought she was creating the first for San Francisco, not realizing Laurie King beat her to the punch.  But, she tired of that series.  When, she researched, she was only able to go 60 miles to San Francisco.  She wanted to write a series that would allow her to travel for research. 

Robin thought if she created an FBI agent as a character, she could travel to foreign countries, and use the travel for tax write-offs.  It's only on TV, though, that the FBI agents have private, glass-enclosed offices, and fly on private planes.  But, she decided she wanted to use her forensic art background for books, and base some of the stories on actual cases.  Her character, Sydney Fitzpatrick, would do some cases for the FBI, and some local cases.

Burcell started doing forensic art in 1986 or 87.   She was a police officer, and had done cartoons at the office, and her boss mentioned there was training available by the FBI at Quantico for a forensics artist.  It takes artists 2 1/2 to 3 hours per drawing.  They're asking a victim to relive the crime as the artist takes them back through the crime.  Face of a Killer is about that process.  Before departments had forensic artists, they would use an IdentiKit.  Cops called it the Mr. Potato Head Case, because they would add or subtract features.

Robin said artistic ability runs in her family.  Her grandmother was an artist; her mother was an artist; and, now, she is.

According to Burcell, the drawings are not used for identification purposes.  They are used for elimination purposes.  They can't say, this is the man in the drawing.  But, if the drawing shows a thin face with a mustache, that eliminates men with full faces, and, possibly, men without facial hair.  She showed us some of her drawings, while discussing the cases that were involved. 

In answer to questions, Robin said it is difficult to ask victims questions, and talk them through the drawings.  It's emotionally draining for the artist.  Hypnosis is not used, and it's not allowed in court.  She said she was also the department's fingerprint expert since it was a small department.  She also told us a lot of police work is serendipity.  She had done a sketch based on a victim's description.  And a cop walked back into the jail, and said, there's a guy back there that looks like your sketch.  At the time, when fingerprints were taken, they only took the thumb and three fingers, not taking the pinky.  But, the perpetrator in this particular case had left the fingerprint of a pinky.  So, Burcell went back into the jail, took the guy's fingerprints, and the pinky prints matched.  He was found because a cop walked back there, and thought the guy looked familiar.

Burcell's crime novel, Face of a Killer, deals with the murder of Sydney Fitzpatrick's father, and her attempt to find the truth twenty years later.  A new forensic sketch, following a meeting with the man on death row for the killing, provides answers.

Robin told us that forensic artists were Adobe Photoshop before Photoshop existed.  They aged photos by watercolor, and then took pictures of the photos after they were aged.  Now, it's easier to do with Photoshop.  She said she had learned to be a forensic artist, living at the FBI academy for a two week course, and then spending a week with the San Jose sketch artist.  She usually just did the sketches for heavy-duty felonies, such as rape, robberies, and murder.  She finally had to stop doing the sketches because she had an accident, was off work, and was left with a tremor.

That night, at the Poisoned Pen, Burcell added a few more stories.  When she and author Jim Born discussed cop stories, she said she cannibalized funny things that cops say.  One phrase didn't fit in any of her four books, and she had to take it out of all four.  Finally, with her fifth book, Face of a Killer, she got it in.

She said she had always wanted to write, but she also wanted to be an artist.  In math class, she would draw a picture, then drop herself in the story of that picture.  However, she didn't always want to be a cop, although she was one for twenty-seven years.  Robin wanted to be an Olympic skater, but her family just didn't have the money.  She was in her early twenties, going to junior college, and found out she could take ice skating for credit.  So, she would go to the rink, and one woman there kept bothering her, saying you should go apply for a job at the sheriff's office.  And, she just kept at her.  So, finally, Burcell applied, just to shut up the woman.  She was the first female officer in the department in Lodi, California.  She spent eighteen years there, and finished her time at Sacramento County.

Burcell drew cartoons at work, then was sent to Quantico for training in 1986.  In 2003, she did her first artwork, other than for forensics, and she proudly showed drawings of her daughters.  She told us a forensics artist might work with a forensic anthropologist to get the bone structure right.  Robin is a forensics artist who prefers drawing rather than working with clay.

Burcell originally wrote police procedurals.  By book four, she had killed off all the people her character loved.  It was time to start a new series.  She decided if she went with a character who worked for the FBI as a forensic artist, the FBI would have a bigger budget, so maybe Robin would get to go places in the course of research, and, maybe, write off the travel.

She did take a trip to Italy for book two, Bone Chamber.  Her mother had lived there for nine years, so she helped with the background, and helped with description.  But, finally Burcell said she needed to see it herself.  Once she was actually there, the places were different.  For instance, she had written a scene on a street in Naples with a limo.  But, once she saw the streets there, she realized no one would be driving a limo in Naples.  The streets are too narrow.

If you get the chance to hear Robin Burcell, you won't regret it.  She's funny, interesting, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the work of a forensic artist.

Robin Burcell's website is

Face of a Killer by Robin Burcell.  HarperCollins, ©2008. ISBN 9780061122309 (paperback), 400p.

Bone Chamber by Robin Burcell. HarperCollins, ©2009. ISBN 9780061122293 (paperback), 400p.


Chantelle Osman said...

Robin was so much fun, and so informative! It was fascinating to see how the sketches we see come into being and how they're really used! Plus, I had no idea it was going to be such a hoot seating Robin within heckling distance of Jim!

Lesa said...


Do you think that was a plant, with Robin having a handcuff key in her purse? Seemed a little suspicious to me. (grin)

Robin was fun. And, so good as a forensics artist. I couldn't believe how close her first sketch was to the suspect, even before she took the FBI class.

Kris said...

Sounds very interesting. I'll have to add her books to my wish list too.

I wish I could travel and use it as a tax right off. lol!

Lesa said...

Wouldn't that be nice, Kris? I'm looking forward to the books as well. I bought both of them that day.

DJ Necterr said...

Sounds like a great read. Thanks for sharing!

I am a new author with an autobiography to be released on November 1st. I will be speaking about how I made it to the hip hop industry to work with hip hop artists such as Jay-Z and Dipset. I also will speak about how Lil' Wayne snitched on me.

Be sure to sign my guestbook too. Thanks!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, DJ. I hope you get the chance to pick up Robin's books.

And, good luck with your book.

James O. Born said...

You're too kind. It was my honor to sit next to the "Guest of Honor".


Jim Born

Lesa said...

I am not being "too kind," Jim. Every word I said was the truth. (grin)