Writing Echoes

Delijah's Writing Blog

Research Book Review: Cause of Death

Book: CAUSE OF DEATH: a writer’s guide to death, murder and forensic medicine
Author: Keith D. Wilson
ISBN: 0-89879-524-9
Number of pages: 207

This book has an outright characteristic: it is a pre-CSI [link] book. Hell, it is even a pre-ER [link] book, and nevermid what anyone might think of them, it has to be admitted that each of those series started a trend that has had the television-watcher ‘used’ to some… level of gore and morgue scenes – or not, depending on how much the show is censored, I guess.

A while back I was considering to get a couple of books from the Howdunit series, in the end I bought four of them, all second-hand, and I spent a grand total of £15 on them all. I mention this because while I am quite happy with Cause of Death as a £3.75 book, I don’t think that it is a book one must own in pristine condition and having paid full price. It is fun how for some books I feel the urge to have an original new copy, but for the Howdunit I don’t really mind them being second-hand.

Let’s start with the chapter content of the book:

  • Part I: Death and dying
    • Death – Defining the terms death and dying
  • Part II: Medical and legal procedures related to death
    • Emergency! – How emergency rooms work
    • Declared dead – The process of pronouncing death
    • How the body is handled – Who handles the body, how hey do it and why they do it that way
    • Time of death – How to determine the time of death by analyzing the body’s condition
    • The Autopsy – How medical investigators establish the cause of death
    • Murder or suicide – Deciding the manner and mechanism of death
    • Crime and punishment – Where and how capital punishment is performed
  • Part III: Causes of Death
    • Accidents – Ways in which death occurs
    • Sudden death – A discussion of death from natural causes
    • Chronic illness and disease – debilitating diseases and the process of slow death
    • Controversies involving death – A brief look at moral, ethical and political issues associated with death.
  • Glossary

While the topic of the book is not for everyone, the author keeps a rather neutral tone all through the text, which does not make the book gross. Examples from literature and movies are used to illustrate different ‘causes of death’, which makes it easy to read – it was way faster than reading YAKUZA [link] indeed, even if not nearly as good XD Still quite interesting, though.

I read somewhere that this book was the ultimate guide to forensic medicine for writers. While I think that is exaggerating, the text is not a bad one to read at least once and go back to if you’re writing anything involving murder and police procedure. I surely will have to if / when I end up writing about my Korean-Scottish ME. However, it has the basic flaw all the Howdunit seem to share: they are completely USA-focused, which might cause some trouble when you try to write other parts of the world.

The most useful part for me was the second one, between Emergency and Murder or suicide; it describes, without it being gory or disgusting, the ER procedure and how wounds are prioritized to how the autopsy is performed, both on a ‘checklist’ base, which makes it easy to read, stickynote-up and use if the needs arise. I also found some interesting information on gunshot wounds and patterns that I had never found so clearly before and that will provide entertainment while watching crime shows and playing ‘spot the mistake’ might become handy in the future. I especially appreciated the old-fashioned drawings, like in the old medicine textbooks; once again, they help without being gory.

All in all, for someone who is planning on a thriller or a detailed autopsy scene, Cause of Death is a good read – probably a bit outdated though – but is not a book for everyone just for the hell of it, I own up to skipping a paragraph or two myself XD. If you are really interested in forensic science, I am sure that there are actual good textbooks out there. If you just want a more or less detailed story, you’re good with this book. In any other case… just don’t believe everything that TV tells you and always double-check (at least!) your key facts.

PS: I keep wondering if the fact that this was my bedside book for a whole weekend makes me a psycho or something -o.o-

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3 responses to “Research Book Review: Cause of Death

  1. Denise January 24, 2012 at 13:53

    You think I get away with my beta having read it?