07 March 2013

Book Review

Dr Geoffrey Garrett and Andrew Nott
Cause of Death: Memoirs of a Home Office Pathologist

For over 30 years Geoffrey Garrett was the senior Home Office pathologist for NW England. This means he got all the juicy jobs, like working out how some notorious murders (like one of the Moors Murders) were committed and the actual cause of death.

Most of it would have hardly been routine, even for an experienced pathologist, but you would never think so from reading this book. Garrett makes the job sound absolutely mundane and boring most of the time. And that's a reflection on the book, because clearly the job wasn't at all routine on the ground and Garret says this in a few places.

But I found the book dull. So dull I almost gave up reading it. The style is to me very flat and lifeless — like the corpses Garrett is so often examining. Not that we get much detail of those examinations, beyond a few bare medical facts: so many wounds, such and such internal damage, a few broken ribs and skulls. And a lot of it obfuscated in medical terminology which is hardly ever explained.

Indeed the book is so bland it is not at all gruesome. Surely it should be gruesome? OK we don't need great detail of the basic autopsy method every time (Garrett covers that once in the introduction, though even that is a bit sketchy) but we would benefit from more on the methods specific to the cases. For instance, what is the test done on blood to determine the level of carbon monoxide present; and how is it done? We're never told. As a scientist, I wanted to know.

Yes, I wanted a lot more. More on the tests which are done, but also more on the forensic investigative process; more interesting puzzles to solve and how they were solved. I had expected this and that I didn't get it left me feeling somewhat short-changed.

This should have been an interesting book, illuminating a world which, thankfully, most of us are never involved with. But sadly for me it failed.

Overall rating: ★★☆☆☆

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