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Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death (2001)

by Jessica Snyder Sachs

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384548,647 (3.89)11
When detectives come upon a murder victim, there's one thing they want to know above all else: When did the victim die? The answer can narrow a group of suspects, make or break an alibi, even assign a name to an unidentified body. But outside the fictional world of murder mysteries, time-of-death determinations have remained infamously elusive, bedeviling criminal investigators throughout history. Armed with an array of high-tech devices and tests, the world's best forensic pathologists are doing their best to shift the balance, but as Jessica Snyder Sachs demonstrates so eloquently in Corpse, this is a case in which nature might just trump technology: Plants, chemicals, and insects found near the body are turning out to be the fiercest weapons in our crime-fighting arsenal. In this highly original book, Sachs accompanies an eccentric group of entomologists, anthropologists, biochemists, and botanists--a new kind of biological "Mod Squad"--on some of their grisliest, most intractable cases. She also takes us into the courtroom, where "post-O.J." forensic science as a whole is coming under fire and the new multidisciplinary art of forensic ecology is struggling to establish its credibility. Corpse is the fascinating story of the 2000year search to pinpoint time of death. It is also the terrible and beautiful story of what happens to our bodies when we die.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
I found myself comparing this book to Mary Roach's Stiff, which isn't quite fair. Unlike Roach, whose book was as much a personal essay as an exploration of the topic of what happens to our bodies once we're done with them, Sachs takes a workmanlike approach to the somewhat related topic of forensics and determining when a given death occurred.

The book started out kind of slow, with a historical look at time of death, using the body itself as a determiner. Algor mortis (body temperature changes), livor mortis (settling of blood in the lower portions of the body) and rigor mortis (stiffening of muscles/limbs) have all been & continue to be used as indicators of how long a given person has been dead; Sachs presents the attempt at refining the measurements within the past 100 years or so and the discovery of how environmental factors can skew the basic formulas.

The pace picked up a bit once we delve into forensic entymology and forensic botany - fans of Gil Grissom will feel right at home here. The descriptions get a bit gruesome (I kept thinking back to Roach's desire to use "a more pleasant word, like hacienda" instead of maggot) as specific cases are discussed -- not recommended reading over a meal. William M. Bass and The University of Tennesssee's Body Farm get a well-deserved mention in this section - as well as the "Dirty Dozen" - a group of entymologists who became interested in the subject and developed the forensic discipline.

Sachs continues to remind us that a definite time of death is practically impossible to determine, despite the best efforts of the multi-disciplinary methodology available. CSI, Law and Order and Dr. Kay Scarpetta make it look all too simple.

Recommended for anyone interested in the truth behind crime fiction and/or general interest in the nitty-gritty of death. ( )
1 vote Sandra_Berglund | Mar 31, 2016 |
Jessica Snyder Sachs is an American professor who has experience of editing scientific magazines and writing for national publications on health and science. ‘Time of Death’ was her first book and she has since published a second about germs and bacteria. I spotted this book in a charity shop and grabbed it as I am a fan of CSI and so thought this looked interesting.

As a fan of crime fiction in book form and TV programmes I know how important determining time of death can be for catching a killer, but I’ve always wondered at the precision fictional pathologists seem able to apply. Is it really possible to pinpoint the hour of death? Well, yes…and no.

The premise

Sachs has written a history of the search for a conclusive method for determining time of death. In it she examines the role of the three traditional ‘death clocks’ – rigor mortis, algor mortis and livor mortis – and the difficulties inherent in using them to condemn or free a suspect before moving on to look at more modern methods of investigation, in which nature (in the form of bugs, bones and plants) seems set to beat more ‘sophisticated’ technology hands down. In doing so she discusses the painstaking research of a number of scientists and considers how it has been applied in real life cases ranging from the O. J. Simpson murder trial to deaths in ancient Greece. Ultimately, despite the progress that has been made in the field, Sachs concludes that any one method on its own is prone to inaccuracies and that the pathologists’ best hope for future TOD determinations may lie in embracing a range of methods.

My thoughts

I found the premise extremely interesting and thought the image of bare feet wearing a toe tag on the front cover worked well to draw readers in without being gruesome or provocative.

Typically, Sachs draws readers in to the prologue by telling a story. Most chapters begin in this way and I felt that this was an effective device as it gave the narrative a sense of focus. I felt this was important when the author was handling so many characters, cases and disparate threads. This story is about a man called David Hendricks and the search for forensic evidence to prove whether or not he murdered his wife and children. Time of death was crucial in this case, but the forensic experts disagreed and Sachs moves away without concluding the case to focus on the historical developments in determining time of death. I found the way the case was presented was simple and engaging; Sachs doesn’t waste time with unnecessary details or by supporting one set of arguments over another. Briskly outlined, the case is unceremoniously dropped once the difficulty of interpreting evidence surrounding time of death (in this case, analysis of the murder victims’ stomach contents) has been established. I was a little disappointed not to know the outcome of the case, but understood that it was irrelevant to Sach’s point. This is true of other cases throughout the book and I did find it a little frustrating at times as I thought it would only take a sentence in brackets to share the outcome of these cases.

As is typical of non-fiction books, Sachs uses the prologue to outline the scope of the book as a whole. However, while many writers use this as a chance to give a précis of each chapter, Sachs’ approach is more holistic as she gives a brief overview of medical markers which can be used to determine time of death, including explaining the key markers or rigor mortis (body stiffness), rigor algor (body cooling) and livor mortis (blood pooling). This was a helpful approach as it gave me a real sense of the scope of the book and readers could use this to decide whether or not they wanted to proceed with the more detailed examination in the rest of the book. I thought this was actually preferable to the chapter by chapter approach, which I often end up skimming over anyway. (I find this much more annoying when it happens on TV programmes, many of which seem determined to spend the first five minutes of the show sharing the ‘highlights’ of the episode before actually, um, showing the episode. Why on earth do programme makers assume that we want to watch all the interesting bits of the show before we actually *watch* the show?)

There are 12 chapters which then take the reader through developments in forensic pathology. This isn’t rigidly done and references are made to modern and some rather more ancient cases throughout. Sachs’ style is accessible to the lay reader and there is only one reference in the whole book. She tends to tell stories, focus on a particular person or group of people for a while, and then bring together developing trends. I found this approach made the book easy to read and to follow. Obviously, this is a gruesome topic and it certainly isn’t written for the faint hearted. That said, I am a very squeamish person and I never had to put this book down and recover from a wave of sickness, which I have occasionally had to do with crime fiction books. Descriptions of (e.g.) maggots are detailed, but they are approached in a way that actually made me want to share the information I was reading with anyone (un)lucky enough to be nearby (!) rather than making me feel ill. As I can be quite sensitive to anything gory or unpleasant, I think my response means that this will be suitable for most readers.

A large proportion of the book (perhaps as much as a third) focuses on the use of insects to determine TOD and I did find the book a little more heavy going at some points. For instance, at several junctures Sachs seems keen to describe in quite some detail the differences between groups of similar looking flies. Her enthusiasm for the subject is made clear in her acknowledgements where she comments that her partner tolerated her ‘newfound interest in flies on dead squirrels and picnic plates’, but if you don’t share this enthusiasm then some of these passages can feel a bit long-winded.

I found the first and last portion of the book the most interesting. The first was particularly interesting as it examined the problems with the traditional ‘death clocks’ and explored a range of cases where specific circumstances made determining TOD difficult. The final section involves research on flora and fauna which I found fascinating, especially for the precision such methods could allow. Everything is clearly explained so there is no need to be an expert on any of the topics Sachs covers.

The final chapter is shorter than its predecessors and functions as a kind of epilogue in which Sachs draws her conclusions. I thought this helped to ‘shape’ the ending of the book nicely. There is also a short further reading guide and an index. Most of the further reading sounded a little too academic for me, but I think it would be useful to someone who had a genuine interest in this field of study.

Conclusions

This is an interesting history of attempts to determine time of death which is written with a lay audience in mind. If you have an existing interest in this topic then I think this is a very good guide to the key developments in the fields of pathology, botany, entomology and archaeology. As I have no knowledge in these fields I do not mean ‘good’ in the sense of ‘accurate’, as I am not qualified to make that judgement. I mean ‘good’ in the sense that I found it interesting and informative. The cases Sachs includes are often genuinely interesting – like the ‘fresh’ body that turned out to be a Confederate soldier – and, even when the cases themselves are quite dry, are described in a way that makes them sound relevant and interesting. Having acknowledged my own limitations, it may be helpful to know that several online reviewers who do have knowledge of these fields and disciplines have been extremely positive about the book, suggesting that Sachs knows her stuff. Of course, her background in science also suggests that this is a reliable text.

My edition, oddly, has no RRP and, anyway, was a bargain for £2.75 in my local charity shop. Online sources suggest it can be found new for £7.99 which I think is a great price for 258 pages of carefully researched and informative writing on this topic. The binding feels quite sturdy, although whoever had my copy before me has nevertheless managed to break it on page 68, which was a little annoying when I was reading it. I don’t imagine most people would have this problem. It may be of limited interest to those who are already quite knowledgeable as I do not get the impression that there is anything ‘new’ here; it is a gathering of knowledge rather than an addition to literature on this subject. If this is a topic you are interested in but your knowledge, like mine, is limited to CSI et al, then I would highly recommend this book. ( )
  brokenangelkisses | Aug 23, 2012 |
I read this book for a class and it was really interesting. It was more serious than Mary Roach's 'Stiff' (which also deals with a bit of forensic anthropology), but still an enjoyable read, and I did learn a lot about it. It has a lot of facts without being overly dense or boring. ( )
  gillis.sarah | Jan 12, 2009 |
A fascinating look at the various methods that we use to estimate the ever-elusive time since death, including rigor mortis, livor mortis, body temperature, insect activity, plant activity, and bacteriological decay. Although we know much more than we did at the turn of the century, frustratingly, in many, if not most, cases, time since death turns on the temperature. Well written and almost impossible to put down, this is recommended for forensic anthropologists or those interested in forensics generally. ( )
  Meggo | Jan 4, 2008 |
An engrossing treatment of a fairly esoteric question: after the discovery of a corpse, how do we determine the time of death? But Sachs takes this material and spins it into gold, leading the reader on an in-depth tour of the historical and scientific effort to answer this deceptively simple question ( )
  porbecito | Sep 25, 2007 |
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When detectives come upon a murder victim, there's one thing they want to know above all else: When did the victim die? The answer can narrow a group of suspects, make or break an alibi, even assign a name to an unidentified body. But outside the fictional world of murder mysteries, time-of-death determinations have remained infamously elusive, bedeviling criminal investigators throughout history. Armed with an array of high-tech devices and tests, the world's best forensic pathologists are doing their best to shift the balance, but as Jessica Snyder Sachs demonstrates so eloquently in Corpse, this is a case in which nature might just trump technology: Plants, chemicals, and insects found near the body are turning out to be the fiercest weapons in our crime-fighting arsenal. In this highly original book, Sachs accompanies an eccentric group of entomologists, anthropologists, biochemists, and botanists--a new kind of biological "Mod Squad"--on some of their grisliest, most intractable cases. She also takes us into the courtroom, where "post-O.J." forensic science as a whole is coming under fire and the new multidisciplinary art of forensic ecology is struggling to establish its credibility. Corpse is the fascinating story of the 2000year search to pinpoint time of death. It is also the terrible and beautiful story of what happens to our bodies when we die.

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