The Forever Witness by Edward Humes

The Forever Witness: How Genetic Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder (Dutton 2022) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Edward Humes is one of the best works of true crime published this year. The Forever Witness is bound to inform readers’ understanding of criminal investigation and DNA testing. 

The text recounts the murder investigation and close case of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, two young people who were murdered during a trip to Seattle from British Columbia in the 1980s. If you are at all interested in Canadian true crime, this case, which encompassed multiple countries, is extremely famous. Tanya and Jay’s last moments were undoubtedly harrowing, and although their bodies were found in separate locations, there was no murder weapon, no witnesses, and only a single handprint on the outside of the couple’s van. Police were unable to generate any promising leads in the 1980s, and the case seemed to fall into stasis, with the families of Tanya and Jay left waiting. 

While the text recounts the tragedies of the losses of Tanya and Jay, The Forever Witness simultaneously explores the progression of familial DNA testing and its uses in solving crimes. Thousands of samples of DNA are frozen in crime labs across the US, waiting to be tested against potential subjects, including the DNA of Tanya and Jay’s killer. Humes follows one woman: California resident CeCe Moore and her devotion to using genetic genealogy to solve criminal cases. Eventually, Humes draws these two separate narrative threads together when a cold case detective working on Tanya and Jay’s case—Jim Scharf—sends a sample of the suspect’s DNA to Parabon NanoLabs. A thrilling pursuit involving detective work and science ensues, and the outcome of the case will go on to make history in the world of genetic genealogy.

This book was fabulous. The Forever Witness was thorough, informative, and deeply emotional. Humes makes vivid the lives of both Tanya and Jay, as well as the consequences of their losses for their families. His portraits of their lives and the world they lived in is deeply affecting. Humes is careful to unpack the social and criminal environment that constituted the Seattle area at the time that Tanya and Jay arrived, and overall, he paints a vivid picture of the circumstances behind Tanya and Jay’s deaths. 

The other half of the novel is a comprehensive history of DNA testing, genetic genealogy, and the investigation. I was on the edge of my seat until the very end of the book. Humes also connects the text to other crimes that have been solved through this DNA method, such as the Golden State Killer case. It was fascinating to see this case in context as genetic genealogy becomes more prevalent. 

Furthermore, The Forever Witness explores the ethical dimensions to this kind of DNA testing. Although there is an entire industry built around gemological testing, with companies inviting individuals to submit their DNA to learn more about their family history, Humes recounts the various debates around this incredibly new and ethically murky use of DNA technology and how law enforcement and criminal courts are attempting to cope with these technological developments. All of this is done against the backdrop of the solved murders of Tanya and Jay, which raises interesting questions, concerns, and debates that I was fascinated by. 

I think The Forever Witness is a must-read for fans of true crime, cold case investigations, and those interested in the very current and still-developing issues in criminal cases today. 

Please add The Forever Witness to your Goodreads shelf and follow Edward Humes on Twitter.

Don’t forget to follow True Crime Index on Twitter and please visit our Goodreads for updates on what we’re reading! You can find Rachel on her personal @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

About the Writer: 

Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary and the co-creator of True Crime Index, Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads

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