When Death Came Calling Today*

Medical ExaminersOne 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.


Filed under Ariana Franklin, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Ellis Peters, Ernesto Mallo, Felicity Young, Kathy Reichs, Peter James, Priscilla Masters, Robin Cook

24 responses to “When Death Came Calling Today*

  1. Interesting topic, Margot! Since I don’t read much of the coroner-style mystery, the coroner I’m most familiar with is…Quincy. Loved him. 😉

    • Kathy – Thank you. And it’s funny you’d mention Jack Klugman as Quincy. I almost – came this close – used a ‘photo from that show as the blog ‘photo. In the end I decided not to, but it was a close call. I used to like that show very much too. Hmmm….maybe I can find a DVD of it or something somewhere….

  2. Long ago before he hit the big-time with his Lewis trilogy, I enjoyed the early books in Peter May’s China Thrillers. The two main protagonists were Chinese police detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell. A lot of the interest in the books was the differences in forensic science and detection methods between these two clashing cultures…

    • FictionFan – Oh, yes of course! Thank you for reminding me of that series. It is really interesting to see how different cultures go about detecting and go about getting answers to forensics questions. And of course, there’s Peter May’s writing…

  3. I think Inspector Morse has very varied relations with a number of different police surgeons doesn’t he? I am also thinking of the ways they can be fooled about the time of death: there’s a book where the victim’s blood condition leads to a mistaken time of death (I’m betting you know the one I mean). And I’ve recently read one where the body is hidden in a fridge, which puts the time out – I think that has featured in several plots in fact. Blog topic for you there….?

    • Moira – Oh, it is indeed. All sorts of things can alter the time of death. Thanks for the inspiration; I’ll have to work on that one! And it’s interesting that you mention Morse and his relationship to police surgeons. Morse is not really a squeamish person, but he’s not keen on the witnessing autopsies or seeing a lot of blood. That makes him more human to me anyway.

  4. Gerritson’s Rizzoli and Isles series features a medical examiner (Isles) and then there’s forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta from the Cornwell series who often assists in difficult cases.

    • Pat – Oh, yes of course, I’ve liked some of the Rizzoli and Isles books quite a lot. I have to admit I’ve not seen the TV adaptation, so I don’t know if that’s good. And you’re right of course about Kay Scarpetta, too.

  5. Margot: While Katya Hijazi is titled a lab technician in the coroner’s office in Saudi Arabia she is a well trained and knowledegeable scientist. In a country with narrowly defined roles for women she is expanding what women can do in Saudi Arabia. She was a special character in Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris.

    • Thank you, Bill. Kataya is a great example of the sort of skilled scientist that proves so helpful when the police are investigating a case. She may not have the official title of medical examiner, but she’s qualified and her help is quite valuable to the protagonist of Finding Nouf Nayir al-Sharqi.

  6. kathy d.

    Zoe Ferraris’ books with Katya Hijazi are quite unusual, a woman professional in Saudi Arabia. At times difficult to read about as the society is so repressive towards women (and others).
    I enjoy reading books featuring medical examiners, especially Ariana Franklin’s series with Adelia Aguilar.
    Felicity Young’s books are fun, too, because they bring in history about women’s rights — or lack therein — in the early 1900s in England.
    I’ve read my share of other series, but I’m not a fan of autopsies, so I have to skip descriptions that are too graphic.
    Even the most steeled cops like Harry Bosch don’t like autopsies, but have to endure them sometimes.
    But, I’m so glad Quincy was brought up here. That was a favorite TV show. I think I watched Jack Klugman play that daring medical examiner every week as long as that show was on the air. A great show in many ways.

    • Kathy – It was a good series, I think. And I’m like you about too much forensic detail. I’ve been known to skip a page or two of a book if the information gets too detailed for me. It’s true too that lots of fictional cops (Morse, Bosch and others) aren’t too big on autopsies either. I rather like that about them; it makes them more human.

  7. On TV of course my mind always races to QUINCY performing an emergency tracheotomy with a biro but in literature I have, I admit, tended to stay clear of overtly forensic after a rather harrowing Patricia Cornwell book – your axamples sound much better though, as always!

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And it’s funny you’d mention that episode of Quincy – I remember it too. About literary medical examiners, I know what you mean. There are some novels where the detail is too much, and if the book itself is not well written, so much the worse. But I think there are some solid series and novels out there that don’t cross that line.

  8. Dr ‘Ducky’ Mallard, played by David McCallum in NCIS, is a wonderful pathologist. He has long and one-sided conversations with the deceased and is full of quotes and wisdom which he passes on to his amiable but inept assistant, Dr Palmer. His scenes are often the best in the episode.

  9. Although her investigations are in cold cases Dr. Temperance Brennan in the Bones series has to use medical knowledge to find out details about murder victims. I love this post and everyone’s suggestions in the comments.

    • Cleo – I like that about Brennan too, both in the Reichs series and in the TV adaptation. I think in both cases, we see just how important it is to have that medical expertise that medical examiners have. And I’ve been learning from everyone’s input too!

  10. Except for the first book in the Adelia Aguilar series, I have not read any of the books mentioned in the post. Will be reading the first in the Colin Cotterill series soon. I have read several of the Rizzoli and Isles series, and although they often feature serial killers, I have enjoyed them. Not so much the TV series based on the characters. They changed too much for my tastes.

    • Tracy – You know, I’ve never watched the TV adaptation of the Rizzoli/Isles series, and that’s exactly why. I heard from people I trust that so much was changed that it just didn’t resemble the novels well enough. I hope you’ll enjoy the Dr. Siri novels. I think they’re very well done.

  11. Keishon

    I loved Ariana Franklin’s series of books. I am hoarding the last book she wrote in the Adelia Aguilar series. I enjoyed her historical fiction as Diana Norman and read almost all of those. I think Colin Cotterill’s work is always excellent. I read almost all of them back to back.

    I am kind of fascinated and grossed out by forensic mysteries. Believe it or not, I still haven’t read Patricia Cornwell beause of that. But I have read some forensic mysteries but it’s not my thing normally.

    • Keishon – Franklin/Norman was a very talented writer. She died far too young. And I’m glad you enjoy Colin Cotterill’s work; I like it a lot too. Wit, good stories and solid mystery, too.
      As far as forensic mysteries go, some are really graphic. Others aren’t so much. For me, I must admit, it depends on how detailed they are and of course, whether the plot and characters are well-drawn.

  12. Col

    My wife is a fan of Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles books and I’ve read a few myself. I haven’t yet enjoyed Cotterill, but he’s waiting somewhere on the pile. The forensic element interests me when reading as long as it doesn’t become the main focus and take over.

    • Col – I know what you mean about the forensics element taking over a novel. I’ve read books like that and not enjoyed them. I hope you’ll get the chance to try Cotterill’s work. Really strong sense of place and a subtle humour.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s