s5 ep1: Dr xanthe mallett
I have always been fascinated by forensics, criminology and how science is used to solve many criminal cases around the world, so I leaped at the opportunity to speak with someone who does this as a day job!
Dr Xanthe Mallett is a forensic anthropologist, criminologist, television presenter and three-time author.
Dr Mallett released Mothers Who Murder in 2014, Cold Case Investigations in 2019 and Reasonable Doubt in 2020 and has opened up conversations that have helped the families of many victims.
She has worked with police forces around Australia assisting with the identification of persons of interest in criminal cases, as well as providing advanced DNA technologies that assist with the identification of long-term deceased victims and suspects.
In amongst all of this, Dr Mallett is heavily involved in the academic realm and contributes to various true-crime television series as well as being a regular contributor to crime news stories for television, print and radio.
Reasonable Doubt is about exposing false confessions, police biases, misplaced evidence and dodgy science with an expert’s account of the murky underbelly of our justice system.
To get hold of your copy, head to Amazon
Watch the video above or continue reading for the full transcript:
Roxanne – Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Phoenix Phenomenon. I’m your host ghostwriter, Roxanne McCarty-O’Kane . Thank you for joining us for another episode where we delve into the transformative process of becoming an author and talking to the change makers who know this journey all too well. Today, I’m joined by internationally renowned forensic anthropologist and criminologist, author and Dr. Xanthe Mallett. She has written two previous books, called “Mothers Who Murder” which was released in 2014, and “Cold Case Investigations” which was released in 2019. Today, we’ll be talking a lot more about her latest “Reasonable Doubt” which has got remarked in 2020. So I’d like to fill in a little bit more for those who do not know Xanthe and everything that she does around the country and internationally. So Xanthe is a forensic practitioner who works with police forces across Australia assisting with the identification of persons of interest in criminal cases, as well as providing advance DNA technology that assist with the identification of long-term disease victims and suspects. This is all stuff that I really get excited. But in addition to all this, she has academic work going along as well as, lemme start that again. In addition to this, Xanthe also worked a lot in the academic ground and contributes to various true crime, television series as well as being a regular contributor to crime new stories, radio and print media. So, welcomes Xanthe. I don’t know how you’ve managed to squeeze us into your hectic schedules.
Xanthe – Lovely to be here. Thank you.
Roxanne – Excellent. So, first things first, with all of that going on, I’d love to know how it is that you find time to write books?
Xanthe – Well, yeah, that’s a good question. Whenever I’m gonna do one last one, my husband said, “I’m gonna do another book.” And he’s like, “When are you planning to sleep?” Sleep, who needs that. So, I just really enjoy it actually. I enjoy the process and it is a lot of work and you do get really embedded in it but I am a bit of a workaholic, but I do that cause I really enjoy it. So, to me, I’m really lucky in that I really enjoy my job and it’s so varied. I never get bored. And the books are just part of that journey for me of doing things that I enjoy.
Roxanne – Absolutely. And you know there’s probably many people I know I was one of them that was looking at forensic sciences and criminology when I was looking at what I wanted to study at university. And it’s something that’s always fascinated me. But I’d love to find out for myself when it was that piqued your interest in the career and set you on that path.
Xanthe – So when I was at university I did my undergraduate degree in archeological sciences and I most enjoyed all of the courses that looked at human evolution or bones or identification all of that kind of side. More so than the cultural kind of archeology side or pots or any of that. And that seemed interesting but it didn’t really like my plan, but I was also aware that in my career I wanted to do something to help people now. So archeology is interesting and I love watching the programs especially ones about mummies and all of that stuff. I find it amazing. But I really wanted to do something that had a contemporary impact. And I’m not saying archeology doesn’t, but for me it had to be about helping people providing information that could actually assist them in some way. So when I did my master’s, I looked at how the head and face adapts to the environment. So that was kind of more along this lines of identification. And then for PhD, I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to do a PhD in forensic facial recognition. So using CCTV and improving our methods of CCTV and that was part funded by the FBI. So, I got to go over to Quantico, and give them our results from the study, which was amazing. I had all these FBI offices sitting around a table listening to me. And yeah, I guess I was just lucky that I got a scholarship in forensics which are incredibly rare. And from then, I was just very passionate about continuing down that forensic human identification route. And I also became interested in looking at the behavioral side that goes along with that. So that’s why I kind of marry the forensics which is very much a physical science with the behavioral which is more of a social science.
Roxanne – Absolutely, that’s amazing. And so, just for those of us who don’t know much about what it is you would do on a day-to-day basis is there such a thing as a typical day in your job of a forensic scientist, criminologist?
Xanthe – Well, there really isn’t changes literally every single day. So, some days I’ll be teaching. So, we’ve just finished the teaching for the first semester of this year, which was really odd year because of COVID. But I had 700 students. I was looking after them first semester. So, a lot of time given over to looking after them and making sure they all got through their courses but then, the books just come out. So I’ve been doing a lot of interviews. There’s always new crime stories breaking, there is stuff going on in WUA at the moment. It’s fascinating. So I do a lot of TV and radio interviews about current forensic cases and I’m also working the police on a number of identification as well. So, I was talking to a police officer this morning on my dog walk. So, it literally, it’s just so mixed. It’s just, every day is different and I never get bored.
Roxanne – That’s a good thing. Isn’t it? Excellent. And we were talking off air about obviously we’ve got the three published books to the public the way that you described it. Venturing into your academic test performance. I did wanna ask you what it was that prompted you to take the step out and create something for the general public.
Xanthe – Yeah When I guess it was my students really because, academic textbooks obviously important and growing up in that, professionally growing up in a very academic environment, it’s just something you do. You write academic textbooks, you edit textbooks you do journal, articles and that’s all very, the normal path. You kinda start to go down. And then as I was dealing more and more with students, I was realizing that academic textbooks are not really aimed at students. They buy them for their courses but they’re not buying them to learn stuff generally. They’re not engaging with the material in that way. And so, when I started doing my research for PhD I started looking at expert evidence and came across some of the cases. When I got here I realized we had the same problems with women accused of murdering their children. But I knew that if I wanted to engage in a debate about that then the academic literature is one way to do it. But if I wanted to talk to the students and wanted to get it as a broader discussion I needed to go more for writing for a public audience. And actually I love it. That freedom that you get with writing in your own voice, that you don’t get with academic literature, it’s very staid. There’s a particular procedure said in language you use, and it’s all quite similar you can’t tell who’s written different academic textbooks from the tone, from the voice. Whereas with writing for the public, you have more freedom to use expressions, to be yourself to have opinions and to really engage in some of those debates. So once a week one I’ve kind of hooked actually after that. And I still do journal articles but I haven’t done another academic textbook because to be honest, I really like writing these ones.
Roxanne – Yeah. Excellent. Well, I think you’ve already answered my question. Like how easily to adapt to this new kind of writing. It sounds like you literally just found your voice and ran with it.
Xanthe – I think I’ve worked with some great publishers and they really helped develop your voice and give you the confidence and push you out of your comfort zone with the way that you’re writing. And actually now I kind of find academic writing a bit frustrating because it is so constricting. And I use my, these books, the public works. I’m pointing here these. Obviously you guys can’t see what I’m pointing. I’m pointing at my book which is unhelpful when you’re on zoom, isn’t it. But I use these books in my teaching as well. So, I can give them chapters that I’ve written to kind of broaden their horizons and talk about cases in a different way and teach them a different way of writing and communicating as well. So yeah, I really enjoy this. I find it a much freer way of writing. So I still have to do the academic kind cause you just do as a lecturer, but yeah, I’ve kind of found I think what I really enjoy.
Roxanne – Excellent. Oh, that’s wonderful. And tell me about I know you’re third time author now. So tell me about the first time that you were able to hold a physical copy of your personal book in your hand, what that moment was like for you?
Xanthe – Well I liken it to having a baby, but I’ve never had a baby. So, I have no clue if it’s like that at all. And obviously it’s not as physically painful but it is at least a really long process. I guess you are giving life to something that you’ve thought about for a long time that you kind of worked on you. You have babies and grown and there’s that moment of excitement. When something goes from being a word document to suddenly something solid arrives and you go how did that happen from, me typing away for months on end to actually this tangible thing. And the first time I saw my book in an airport I was totally blown away. Kinda you walk past the stand and your book’s there then you’re like, what is that doing there. It’s just this weird moment of something becoming solid and real. And I never really got over that. Like when I first got this one. It’s that scary kind of like, Ooh, I really did that. It’s actually a real thing now. And it’s almost alive. It takes on a life of its own, people talk about it, people contact you about it, and it’s exciting, but it’s scary as well cause these are real stories and they’re real people and you’ve got to do them justice and you’ve got to be honest and you’ve got to have integrity because you’re writing about people’s lives. And so, there’s that excitement. There’s also that nervousness. I wanna know that everyone who’s mentioned in here, the victims, appreciate the way that their cases have been managed.
Roxanne – Absolutely. And I think that would probably be another outlet behind that you’re motivating you to get these books out there. To showcase some of these things that a lot of public aspirators don’t know about the legal system forensics and how sometimes things can slip through the cracks. Yeah. It must be so much excitement to be able to enlighten them that way.
Xanthe – Yeah, it is. And that’s, I guess that’s why I’ve written each of them. The first one, as I said, was really came out of my PhD. I looked at expert evidence and when it can go wrong specifically in allegations of child death at the hands of mothers. And then when I got here, the same thing was happening and I was like this is obviously not just a UK problem or U.S. problem. Something about the culture and the way we view women in this sense is endemic. And it’s systemic across various Western cultures. The “Cold Case” book I’d work with a lot of victims. And I knew the impact of not knowing what happened and why, and that ongoing constant trauma that they go through. So that came about through working with victims. And this one, I guess, just having worked in the criminal justice system now for quite a long time or is that how long. Then I’ve seen so many problems that just seem to come up again and again and again. And I think having that public debate is really important. But I have to try this really fine line. Cause I do work with the police and I in some ways I’m criticizing some of the police procedure and some of the situations that have occurred. Whilst also working with them on cases. But really I see my role as working for the criminal justice system, rather than either the prosecution or defense. So, if I see a problem, I think it’s our role as objective practitioners to call that out so that we can deal with that cause if we keep ignoring it then it’s not gonna go away.
Roxanne – Yeah, absolutely. And so what is it, I guess, with all of the authorship and everything else you’ve got going on when was it that you first linked in with, helping with media stories and helping with consulting on television series and the lesson of stuff as well?
Xanthe – That one was totally an accident. So, after my PhD, I was lucky enough to get a lectureship at the University of Dundee in Scotland. And that was at a forensic center for human identification. And my boss there, professor See Black, we were always getting requests from different media companies to kinda showcase what we did. But she loves doing radio and she hates doing television. So once I got there, I think she kinda saw it as an opportunity to do some television but her not have to face it so much. So I was kind of like the Guinea pig without even really realizing it. And we were asked to do a couple of series for the BBC called “History Cold Case”. And although they were historical in focus, they were really about applying current up-to-date forensic techniques to archeological remains to see what we could learn about them. And the whole point of that was educating the public on what forensic science could really do. Because this was at a time when CSI was massive, the CSI factory were seeing all these students come in to do the courses thinking they had to have no science because they just watched CSI and you just press the button. You just need to look hot in a lab coat and that’s all the qualifications you need to be a forensic scientist.
Roxanne – Very scary.
Xanthe – Yeah. It was scary. We’re looking at this going these kids have no idea about what actually is behind this. Not only the education in terms of science but also the psychology of it. Some of the things they’ll have to face. So, really it was about, that was an educational project. So I did two series for BBC where I was kind of the primary host, I guess is it well, and then I did a series for Nat Geo. They picked up the same format, and it just kind of went from there. People just kept asking me to do stuff then, and I don’t always do the projects. I always do the ones where I think there’s a purpose. I never wanted to just do it cause it’s voyeuristic. So if we’re gonna go into a cold case or review an investigation I want there to be something we can add to it. Something that can benefit from that. So if a project comes up, so I go, yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah. People keep asking me to do stuff and I go, yep. Okay. Yep.
Roxanne – Excellent. And have you had any success with solving any cold cases that you’ve been involved in any way over these we’ve been working in them?
Xanthe – So not just cold cases. When I first got to Australia, I did a series on Channel 10 in 2013 called “Wanted”, which was basically the equivalent of Australia’s most wanted. And we did 13 episodes of that. And of, I think we covered about 16 or 18 cases across the episodes. And we had a significant number of cases that were progressed and solved as a result of that. But more than that because the program was going to somewhere between five and 700,000 people. What the crime stoppers found was somebody who wasn’t necessarily cool cause the crime stoppers number was always there. These were current cases we were trying to press. They found that people may not know anything about the abduction we just mentioned or the breaking enter or the murder or whatever it was. But they did know that there was a drug dealer down the road. And so they’d call about that. So, it was like this call to arms for lots of different cases. So the calls went up about 500%, I think whilst the program ed and immediately afterwards. So there was significant number of other cases that were solved and crimes that were reported because people got involved in the process. So that was really exciting to know that you were part of something that was genuinely helping the community.
Roxanne – Absolutely XR. I just got goosebumps. That’s so incredible. And have you had any success or any outcomes from cases that you found highlighted in any of the books?
Xanthe – So, I mean, I did look at the Beaumont investigation in 2018. We found what I think is probably the prime suspect. So I worked for Channel 7 on that and I’ve included that in the last book. Trying to remember which one that was in, that was in “Cold Case Investigation”. I was like, which one was that in? So we found what I think is genuinely the most likely person to have been involved in the abduction of the three Beaumont’s siblings in 1966. We haven’t them found yet, but I haven’t given up hope. And what was exciting that investigation is I made contact with somebody who does do physical searches. So normally for archeological remains, but since then we’ve put some funding in together. I’ve got a new PhD student looking at these geophysical techniques for forensic purposes. So there’s all sorts of things, kind of come together when you work on these cases that came out of a media project. I now have a really good kind of academic colleague that I’m working with. And I have got a PhD student and that’s gonna feed into helping the police with searches going forward. So, it’s kind of weird how these little pieces come together and, make a hole that seems disparate a TV to, PhD but actually they will feed into the same thing.
Roxanne – Yeah, absolutely, awesome. And I know from looking at the best sellers that we see in Australia and internationally, true crime is pretty much always ahead. We love to sink our teeth into these things. I don’t know what that says about suppliers.
Xanthe – I know.
Roxanne – But I was curious to find out people can make up, these crimes and a lot of fiction books that are related to crime do really well. But as someone who’s been in the industry and writing about true crime stories, does that ever I guess, how does that play on you emotionally to see these things happening to real people?
Xanthe – Yeah. Well, it’s funny. People always ask me that and I guess it reflected in what I enjoy watching in my personal time. So, I can’t watch horrors for example because I know what people genuinely do to each other the worst things that they’ll do. So to me, it’s not entertainment watching people do these awful things to each other. I do love kind of thrillers, the psychological trying to figure out, but am not personal oriented person. But really I like watching kids’ stuff cartoons, it’s that escapism because I’m embedded all the time in like misery I guess. And although you’re trying to help people it can get quite heavy on you all the time. It’s the emotional kind of toll that it can take. So yeah, I love watching cartoons. Give me a good Disney and that’s like a little break.
Roxanne – I love Disney too. I think I had kids, to have an excuse to watch Disney.
Xanthe – Yeah, I just, watched with the dogs instead. They don’t get as into it, as kids would, I think.
Roxanne – That’s awesome. Okay. It’s great to have that, the chance to disconnect from it all. But you mentioned before, some people have reached out and you some feedback on your books and what sort of things do you hear from readers who do reach out and contact you?
Xanthe – Oh, well, a lot of the time people will contact me about a case that they want reviewed. That can be difficult because I get so many of those and you’re just kind of one person. Other times people will thank me for looking at a case that they may know about or be involved in. So recently I was mentioning just before we started recording, somebody who’s just come across “Cold Case Investigations”. And I mentioned their son’s case in that. And she wrote to me, and that’s where the responsibility comes in of making sure that you’re being honest to what you believe to be the truth and being fair. Other times people have theories. I get a lot of theories, of what’s happening especially with the big case like the Beaumont’s a lot of people email me after that. Even down to people who have like dreams about things and stuff. So it’s a whole mixed bag. Sometimes prisoners write to me that claimed to have been wrongly convicted. So again, yeah, that’s, it’s really variable who reaches out.
Roxanne – And I think, yeah. How do you navigate all of that? Because there would be so many. Like if you’re just one person but there would be so many cases I believe that would be picking your interests. How do you prioritize if I can use that word?
Xanthe – Yeah. It’s really difficult because a lot of the time, especially if somebody believes on he’s been wrongly convicted they can be really passionate about it. They can be no evidence to support that. And it’s really difficult because, you can’t help everybody. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do. And especially when something like a books come out you get so many of these emails that, yeah you kind of feel guilty because you can’t help everybody. And you can feel the desperation and they’ve gone to, everyone they can think of to try and get somebody to assist them. So that’s quite difficult actually to manage. Sometimes I might send them off to one of the innocence initiatives if I think that, there’s a case there. But other times, yeah, sometimes I just can’t help. And that’s kinda sad, because you know that people are really looking for anyone who will listen.
Roxanne – Absolutely, all right. And so, coming back to authorship and your journey to becoming an author for the first time. And obviously subsequent times after that, I do ask all of our guests what your Phoenix Phenomenon was. So how was that you feel like you have evolved or changed throughout becoming an author. And I know you’ve already mentioned you found your authentic voice and you were able to run with that, but I wanted to see if there was anything else that I guess has helped you through the process of becoming an author.
Xanthe – I think I’ve learned how important the narrative is. So, in academic writing, you don’t think about the narrative of the chapter of what you’re writing, or the journal article. And yet with writing these books, there’s gotta be something at the beginning that hooks people’s interest. And it, although they’re real cases they are stories in that sense. And you’ve got to have the narrative working it’s got to flow. So, that’s been an evolution for me, being more brave with my writing and being willing to kind of take on some of those techniques that can hook the audience because that was really alien to me. When I was writing my PhD I was not interested in hooking my reader. With each chapter on, stats or whatever it was. It just wasn’t even a thought bubble. So, I had a great publisher called Mac last time round. He really pushed me out of my comfort zone in terms of seeing these in more of a narrative sense. And that’s really helped me with my teaching because now I’m really impressed with my students. Even as they’re writing an essay, there has to be a clear structure that flows that everything is a story. Even if it’s factual it has to give the reader the information they need at the right times in the right way so they can follow the story. So that’s something that I really learned and I’m hoping that I can then help my students learn some of those lessons so that, that improves their writing. I’m going to start barking now.
Roxanne – That’s okay. It would definitely make marking assignments a lot more fun.
Xanthe – Well yeah, there is that slightly selfish side but it improves their writing, which makes my job easier.
Roxanne – Oh, that’s amazing. I’m comfortable with sharing any figures on how many books you’ve sold since
Xanthe – I really don’t know, actually. Yeah. It’s yeah. I’ve never even asked that, I guess, because to me that’s never really been the point. It’s always just been about the discussions and actually the most interesting discussions happen. A lot of the time with people you meet or via the media or people who reach out to you. So the books are almost like a little incentive to people to have these conversations. So how I’ve never even asked is that weird. Do most authors follow that? I wanna know.
Roxanne – That it’s really great.
Xanthe – I gonna have to find out now cause I’m like I don’t have a clue how many, I don’t know.
Roxanne – I love that cause it just means that you’re driven by pure passion. So I’m all for that. That’s awesome.
Xanthe – Although I’m kinda curious to know.
Roxanne – Awesome. And so I guess what another question I also asked to all of our guests, is if you have any tips for anyone now, I know your writing is very much very heavily research nonfiction and true crime stories. But, if you me to give any tips for people who are looking at becoming an author has been a dream of theirs but they haven’t quite taken the first steps. What would be your advice to them?
Xanthe – I guess, find something you’re passionate about. And because it is a bit like having a baby. You’ve got to stay the course, it can be hard. And when you get those edits back and you’ve got pages and pages of them or worse but there is the legal report. That’s the one I always fear. So yeah. Find something you’re passionate about. It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it really lights your fire. Because I think if you’re interested and you’re passionate then that will engage the reader. If I didn’t write these I’d be writing about dogs I think. That would be my other thing that I would write about. So yeah, just, and be brave, put yourself out there. It is scary, but then anything worth doing, you have to work, work harder and take a risk don’t you? So yeah, just be bold and give it a go and find your voice and what you’re interested in. Don’t try and emulate anybody else.
Roxanne – Excellent. I love that. Thank you so much. And how can people get their hands on copies of your latest book, “Reasonable Doubt” and all of the back catalog as well with where’s the best place for them to go.
Xanthe – So they could go to the Pan McMillan website, all good publishers. If they just Google the title “Reasonable Doubt” and my name it’ll pop up. And my other books will come up alongside that as well. So, and I’d love to know what they think, that’s why I write these, not, I don’t like that kind of one way telling people what to think, it’s really about the dialogue. That’s why I like writing these books. So I’d love to know what people think when they read it.
Roxanne – Excellent. And what’s the best way for them to communicate with you?
Xanthe – Oh, email easy type my name. I’ll pop up at the University of Newcastle and yeah they can just drop me an email.
Roxanne – Excellent. All right. Well, thank you so, so much for your time today. It was really great to hear what your journey has been like. And also for me to ask you a few questions about your industry.
Xanthe – Because you love it don’t you?
Roxanne – I really love it. It’s awesome. And congratulations. So do you think it’s fair to say there might be some whole books in the future?
Xanthe – Oh yeah. I think so, because there are other things that I’ve got in my mind that I guess have evolved in my thought process and things that I’d like to write about. So yeah, I think there will be more I might take a little break cause I’ve done two in the last year and I’m kind of tired, so, but yeah. There’s definitely things that I think conversations that I’d really like to have. Yeah. So there’ll be another one cause I enjoy it. Yeah. I’ll say I’ll wait a while. And then next week I’ll be like, yeah I’m doing another one now I’m ready.
Roxanne – Am ready let’s go.
Xanthe – Yeah let’s go. What’s next?
Roxanne – Awesome. We’ll watch this space and keep following you with interests. So thank you so much for your time today. It was a pleasure to have you on.
Xanthe – Thanks very much.