One of critical tasks in any criminal investigation is finding out exactly how the victim died. For that, police rely on medical examiners. They have slightly different roles in different countries, but in general, their job is to perform autopsies and determine cause of death. Often that leads to a conclusion on manner of death too (accident, suicide or murder). The police rely heavily on that medical information to help make their cases, and medical examiners’ reports are also very useful for attorneys, whether they’re prosecuting or defending someone. It’s no wonder at all then that these professionals figure so often in crime fiction.
Several series feature medical examiners as sleuths, which makes sense when you consider what they do and the information they learn. For instance, Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar lives and works in 12th Century England. She’s what’s called a ‘mistress of the art of death,’ a doctor who was originally at the University at Salerno. At the request of King Henry II, she’s sent to England to investigate a murder and remains there. She may not have modern technology or science at her disposal, but she understands how the human body works, and she is good at determining cause of death.
Although he is not a doctor by profession, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael plays much the same role . He’s a Benedictine monk, and an herbalist. He’s learned many of the telltale signs of different causes of death and that helps him draw his conclusions. And since he’s thoroughly familiar with different kinds of plant life, he’s especially good at finding small pieces of evidence that suggest where the victim was killed and in cases of poison, which kind of poison was used.
Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dodie’ McCleland is a medical examiner who works in the London of the early 20th Century. There’s a real interest in the profession at this time, as it’s the era of the Crippen case and not that many years after the Whitechapel murders. It’s a profession that’s just opened to women, so McCleland faces her share of sexism and cultural barriers. Still, she’s good at what she does. And what’s interesting is that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous real-life pathologist, figures into the series. In fact, Young has written that the inspiration for Antidote to Murder, the second novel in the series, came from Spilsbury’s case notes.
Garrett Quirke, the creation of Benjamin Black, lives and works in 1950’s Dublin. In The Silver Swan, Quirke gets involved in the investigation of the death of Deirdre Hunt. And in this case, we see how important the observations of a medical examiner can be. When the victim’s body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the police believe that it’s a case of suicide. Deirdre’s husband Billy accepts that explanation and wants the matter to go no further. In fact, he appeals to Quirke (they’re old friends) not to conduct an autopsy, saying that he can’t bear to think of his wife’s body cut up and dissected. Quirke agrees to see what he can do, but his suspicions are raised when he discovers a mark from hypodermic needle on one of Deirdre’s arms. That mark casts a whole new light on this death, but it isn’t noticed until Quirke conducts his examination.
And then there’s Colin Cotterill’s 1970s-era Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, so he deals with all sorts of different cases. He faces several challenges too. For one thing, he has very little equipment or technology as his disposal. He has to make do sometimes with very rudimentary solutions, but he manages to get answers. Another challenge is that the government of Laos at this time is in the hands of socialist leaders who demand unquestioning co-operation and obedience. They expect that Dr. Siri’s results will tally with official explanations. That doesn’t always happen though, and Dr. Siri has to be cautious and clever as he goes about his work. But Dr. Siri has a strong and loyal team: Nurse Dtui and mortuary assistant Mr. Geung are highly skilled at their jobs. In fact Mr. Geung knows more about mortuary procedures than Dr. Siri does. This series offers an interesting look at the life of a non-Western medical examiner.
There are also of course many modern-day fictional medical examiners, such as Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. They live and work in New York City, but as readers of this series know, they also travel in the course of their work. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is another example of the modern medical examiner.
Medical examiners also play important roles in novels and series even when they’re not the protagonists. For instance, Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace depends a lot on Cleo Morey, a medical examiner with Brighton and Hove Mortuary. Fans of this series know that while these two begin as colleagues, their relationship changes and they become partners. Morey’s expertise is critical to Grace’s investigations. And Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn, who serves as Coroner for Shrewsbury, depends very much on her team members for accurate results in the cases she hears. In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aries medical examiner Dr. Fusili is very helpful, despite great personal risk, to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano when he investigates a murder that some highly-placed people want ‘rubber stamped.’
Medical examiners have what may seem like eerie jobs. But their expertise is extremely important, and their cases can be very interesting, too. Which fictional medical examiners have stayed in your memory?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Mountain Goats’ The Coroner’s Gambit.