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On DNA and Crime Fiction

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Imagine that one day your sister asks you to spit into a vial, which you do because even though she’s crazy, she’s your sister.  Following her instructions, you pack up the vial and send it to a DNA-testing site that promises to reveal everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your ancestry.

Six weeks later, you discover that your crazy sister is only your crazy half sister. Not only that, you learn that about a dozen people you’ve never even heard of are all related to you.

So, you call your buddy, a millionaire ex-cop who does “favors” for his friends and ask him to look into it without telling anyone because A) you’re sure it’ll mess-up your family and B) there might be some serious cash involved.

Now you’re knee-deep into What Doesn’t Kill Us, my 25th published crime novel—yes, 25—and the 18th featuring Rushmore McKenzie.

What Doesn’t Kill Us isn’t actually about DNA testing. I merely use it as what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin, the reason the action takes place. (It’s actually about family, and what makes us the people we become and greed, lots and lots of greed.)

Yet, I believe that DNA testing will soon become one of the most common tropes of detective fiction, if it hasn’t already. Like the deeply troubled investigator. Or the good wife married to the bad husband. Or the character that wakes up in a room without knowing how he/she got there. Or the suspect who has amnesia. Or…

Anyway, while researching DNA testing and sites like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and CRI Genetics, I discovered that one person out of every fifty who takes a test will learn something that will make them say, “Whoa, that isn’t right,” yet nearly always it is.

The sites even warn customers that they might learn unexpected things about themselves and their families that they can’t unlearn, in the smallest type possible, of course. And we’re talking well over 30 million tests sold!

Mostly the something that isn’t right will involve uncovering long-buried family secrets.

While attempting to learn more about her ancestry, a young woman discovered that her father was not the biological son of her grandparents; that following his birth he had been sent home with the wrong family.

After years of receiving substantial monetary gifts from his wealthy uncle, a young man was surprised to learn through DNA testing that his Great Expectations-like benefactor was actually his wealthy father.

A woman, who knew that she was not related to her father because her parents had used a sperm bank to conceive her, learned the identity of her actual father—the fertility doctor that her parents had worked with who had impregnated her mother with his own sperm.

Best friends since childhood when they grew up across the street from each other, two men discovered that they were actually half-brothers.

Two British women learned that they were descendants of Native-Americans who had been brought to England as slaves.

A sister who had been given up for adoption found her brother who had been raised by their actually parents—apparently, Dad had only wanted sons.

A white man was told that he was one-eighth sub-Saharan African, which revealed that his white mother was actually mixed race and never told anyone, including her husband.

That’s only the beginning.

There’s the very real fact that police and government investigators can—and have—used DNA testing sites to track criminals.

Perhaps the most famous case involved the so-called Golden State Killer, an ex-cop named Joseph DeAngelo, who committed at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes. He was finally arrested after investigators uploaded crime-scene DNA to the GEDmatch database. The DNA directed them to DeAngelo’s great-great-great-grandparents. After that it was a matter of following the roots of the killer’s family-tree until they found him.

Inspired by his capture as well as other successes, law enforcement organizations across the country have been uploading crime-scene DNA to the DNA ancestry sites. Arrests have been made in dozens of crimes including many long-dormant cold cases.

But this has opened up a front in the battle over digital privacy. Should police be allowed to access personal data generated by third parties like 23andMe? Americans, as always, are divided over the issue.

And then there are the medical aspects of DNA testing. Not just learning if you are genetically predisposed to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, but what pharmaceutical firms, healthcare providers, insurance companies, and your employer can do with that intel. Not to mention dating sites—wouldn’t you want to know if a potential mate is susceptible to heart disease before swiping right?

My point being, DNA testing might just become the most common trope in fiction since the brilliant but anti-social computer hacker, because if you can’t get a story out it, you’re not trying.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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