Book review – Working Stiff

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it endlessly: forensics fascinates me. From anthropology to insects, blood splatter to ballistics, everything grabs my attention. My plan before I was ill was to possibly go into forensic anthropology, which I discovered existed after my love of archaeology, and in my time since, I’ve absorbed whatever I can in this subject area. Last year offered up some brilliant books, and one of the books I read recommended “Working Stiff” by Dr Judy Melinek. I’ve been waiting to read it since, and when my ever patient husband was presented with a list of books to surprise me from for Christmas, it had been underlined. Several times. Luckily, he took the hint.

This book is certainly not for those who have a sensitive composition – or a sensitive stomach. The details given are vivid, and the case details are fascinating in a way that drives you emotively, but also makes you want to keep on reading. By the end of the book I felt very much as though I knew the author well, which in any for of autobiographical work is a skill; it shows an openness and honesty regarding yourself that is sometimes hard to offer up even when intended. That kind of vulnerability is what made this book so very special.

It traces the journey from surgery to medical examiner via Judy Melinek’s personal course, looking at the cases she encountered on the way, the lessons she learned, and the experiences she has so willingly shared with us, including the harrowing experience of working in central New York on September 11th as a trainee medical examiner. There is cross over here with the accounts of both Richard Shepard (“Unnatural Causes”) and Sue Black “All That Remains”) who also wrote about this, as parts of the international mass casualty team that worked tirelessly in New York for the time that followed.

This is as much of a personal tale as it is a professional one, and there is dry humor and joy that you can trace through the pages as well as overwhelming curiosity for what you’re learning, and what more you could. The path you follow through the book, covering the “two years, 262 bodies and the making of a medical examiner” is a beautiful one. I know that may sound strange. Personally, I’m just as much of a believer in death positivity as I am body positivity, and both of those things involve needing an open mind, and as much information flooding into it as possible. Whilst the author here deals with traumatic deaths, there is still much to be learned, and taken from what is shared.

I would say this is probably one of the more vivid books in its descriptions that are shared, but if you are interested in forensics, in death positivity, or even just in a high quality non-fiction read, this would be one of my top recommendations. It is written with such skill that even subjects that aren’t easy in themselves are easy to read about, yet handled with such respect that it is very obvious the author cares deeply for the cases she has handled, and for the people as individuals.

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