For the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by forensic pathology. I can’t pinpoint exactly how it started, although I think it might be related to my insatiable need to understand why and how some people do the terrible things they do. In fact, had I been any good at science, it’s probably a career path I would’ve considered. Alas, English was the subject in which I excelled.
On a recent shopping trip to work out what Alex might want for his birthday, I found myself in Waterstones. Browsing book shops has always been one of my favourite ways to waste time and inevitably I ended up in the true crime section. I’ve never really been one for light-hearted fiction, much preferring a grittier read that provides an insight into people’s real lives.
On this particular day, I was in the mood to buy a few new reads when I stumbled across Unnatural Causes: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist.
I was intrigued.
Published in 2018, the book (which has been accurately described as ‘unputdownable’ on the Waterstones website) recounts the career of Dr Richard Shepherd; one of our most esteemed forensic pathologists who at the time of writing his autobiography had performed over 23,000 autopsies over 30 years.
The goal of the forensic pathologist is to assess sudden, unexpected or suspicious deaths and try to ascertain the cause; after reading this book, I can say with some confidence that it’s not a career for those of a nervous disposition.
Having stumbled across an anatomical textbook as a teenager, Shepherd had been enamoured with the idea of becoming a forensic pathologist for many years. I must admit that the idea of knowing what you want to do from a young age is a foreign one to me, never mind dreaming of a career in which you’ll be required to dissect dead bodies on a daily basis.
As well as recounting stories from the mortuary, working on high profile cases from Princess Diana’s fateful Paris car accident to the devastation wreaked on New York City on 11th September 2001, Shepherd’s book follows his efforts to get to the root cause of how people met their untimely ends, whilst interweaving his own personal narrative; the difficulties of balancing the demands of work with marriage and family life.
Some of the most revealing parts of the book come not when Shepherd is negotiating corpses, but rather when he’s trying to navigate the needs of living, breathing humans.
When you spend your days analysing and attempting to explain how people’s lives came to an end, it’s hardly surprising that you’d end up taking some of that work home with you. At one point, in his quest to become an expert in the interpretation of knife wounds, he recounts how he would sometimes stab at the joint of meat meant for his family’s Sunday roast, in an attempt to track the markings left by the blade. Whilst his children were inquisitive about his day job, he found himself grappling with the task of shielding them from crime scene photos.
More complicated still were his dealings with the relatives of victims. On one occasion, he describes a tragic case in which a teenage girl with a pre-existing medical condition is found dead in her bed, and the difficult conversation that followed when her father questioned his reasoning for performing an autopsy. When you’re stricken by grief, I suppose it makes sense that you wouldn’t take too kindly to someone (seemingly unnecessarily) interfering with your loved ones’ remains.
I’ve been reading a couple of chapters of this one every day and with only a few pages to go, I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in forensics or true crime. There’s something strangely comforting about Shepherd’s ability to explain the process of death in the simplest terms, chipping away at its mysteries and leaving you with the desire to delve even deeper into this world where science rules, and every seemingly innocuous mark can tell a story.