Books about Bodies

Books about Bodies When the fictionalized glamour of forensics science recedes, will the stories still captivate?By Katherine Ramsland ARTICLE EXTRASSPRING BOOKSStem Cells on ShelvesAn Awkward SymbiosisThe Death of Faith?High in the TreesBloody IsleThe Enchantment of EnhancementNew Lab ManualsIn Brief Cause of Death: Forensic Files of a Medical Examiner, By Stephen D. Cohle and Tobin T. Buhk, 32

By | April 1, 2007

Books about Bodies

When the fictionalized glamour of forensics science recedes, will the stories still captivate?
By Katherine Ramsland

Cause of Death: Forensic Files of a Medical Examiner, By Stephen D. Cohle and Tobin T. Buhk, 327 pp., Prometheus Books, $26.00
Flesh and Bone: A Body Farm Novel (Body Farm Novels), By Jefferson Bass, 368 pp., William Morrow, $24.95
Post-Mortem: Solving History's Great Medical Mysteries, By Philip A. Mackowiak, 384 pp., American College of Physicians, $29.95

In 1993, "Big" Mike Rubenstein reported the deaths of three of his relatives in a Mississippi cabin. Rubenstein claimed to have visited the cabin in November, but he found it empty; returning in December, he found them dead. Bill Bass, forensic anthropologist and founder of the infamous "Body Farm" on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was asked to construct a timeline for when the deaths had occurred. Careful research on the developmental cycle of maggots and the decomposition rates in certain temperatures placed the deaths in mid-November - exactly when Rubenstein had "visited." He was tried and convicted of triple homicide.

Stories like this have helped fuel a recent cultural obsession with forensics science, a so-called CSI effect. Some scientists, like Bass, have exploited interest from publishers to make their work more accessible, while others have capitalized on the mass market appeal. The results have been mixed, as has response from forensic scientists. Some appreciate the exposure and newfound opportunities to brainstorm with law enforcement, but others are wary that "dumbing down" the science for public consumption compromises standards. Television shows, these critics say, have more often miseducated the public than showcased good science. The fast pace, glamour, and definitive results belie how painstaking and time-consuming this work actually is.

Cause of Death, by Stephen Cohle and Tobin Buhk, aptly demonstrates the reality with its immersion into the minutia of the autopsy. There's little reason to charge around in "Hummers" looking for bad guys, little excitement in the many hours bent over a malodorous body, and plenty of pressure to get small details right. Nevertheless, it's not the first book to offer the daily doings of morgues and pathologists, and therefore suffers by comparison. In a sluggish style with little drive, the medical examiner is ostensibly exposing a reporter to his work, and the intrigue is uneven.

The pace of forensics is generally not fast enough to take place in neat hour-long episodes.

Bill Bass's newest fiction novel, Flesh and Bone, written with Jon Jefferson as the pseudonymous Jefferson Bass, features the daily drudgery of measured work in the name of science but channels the drama more effectively. This, the second of their "Body Farm Novels," opens with two people strapping a male corpse to a tree with an oversized corset, slicing off the penis, and stuffing it inside the mouth. They're trying to carefully replicate the conditions of a murder victim for an accurate time-since-death estimate, and Jefferson and Bass reach a nice balance between melodrama and the tedium of the work. There's little the authors can do to stir things up, aside from targeting the lead character with threats and legal problems, but factoids such as how to interpret a maggot trail keep interest high.

Indeed, the pace of forensics work is generally not fast enough to take place in neat hour-long episodes. Sometimes, it doesn't have to be. Philip Mackowiak is a medical historian, and in Post Mortem, he delves into historical medical mysteries. Since 1995, Mackowiak has directed the annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference, where he and his colleagues debate some of the greatest medical puzzles of all time: Did Alexander the Great contract the West Nile virus, for example, or was the Emperor Claudius actually poisoned? For the 12 cases in Post Mortem, Mackowiak lays out all the facts he can glean on such figures as Christopher Columbus, Edgar Allan Poe, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, and Beethoven. The medical conditions of these "patients" clearly affected their legacies, he contends, and while there are obvious problems with interpreting information from former centuries, Mackowiak carefully unpacks the cases in the style of a scientist looking at all the angles.

One positive influence of the CSI effect has been the development of a broader audience for such books. In the process of reading scientifically accurate books that also tell stories, the public might forget about the mass media's artificial plot devices and find themselves learning how forensic science is actually done. And that's not such a bad thing.

Katherine Ramsland is professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and author of The CSI Effect.

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