Corpse Book Review

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Emily on 02-12-2012

How can a book about something so grotesque be engaging and humorous as well? Jessica Snyder Sachs writes of maggots, rotting flesh and rigor mortis in her book Corpse: Nature, Forensics and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death. The book explores the science of determining time of death. There are three traditional methods for determining time of death. Rigor mortis is the amount of stiffness in a corpse. Lividity is the amount of blood settling and pooling in the body. The third method, or “post-mortem clock,” is body temperature.

According to Sachs, movies and television have created the myth that determining time of death is an exact science. The stiffness of rigor mortis is caused by the biochemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The amount of ATP at the time of death depends on whether the person was physically active. For example, a person who died in a struggle would develop rigor mortis at a different rate from a person who died in their sleep. The stiffness gradually goes away, so using rigor mortis as an indicator of death would not be helpful. Lividity is very subjective, because it depends on describing the shade of a person’s skin color. It is also difficult to distinguish colors if the corpse’s skin is not white. Body temperature is a very inaccurate measure of time of death because it is affected by so many variables, such as weight of the person, material of clothing, and climate.

In the 20th century, three new areas of science began to develop additional tools for determining time of death. In anthropology, a scientist can estimate time of death from the way a skeleton becomes disconnected and bones lose their marrow and gradually break down. The area of entomology can measure time by the rate that insects swarm to a body. A biologist can find clues to the time of death in plant material under a body or accumulated on top of a body. Biology can reveal information through the way vegetation covers a body.

Jessica Sachs is an award-winning science writer. She has a degree from Columbia Journalism School and has taken graduate courses in immunology, microbiology and infectious disease. For many years, she was an editor of national science magazines.

Corpse is extensively researched. Sachs includes many historical details. For example, she explains the origin of the word “coroner”, the history of the acceptance of autopsy as a valid scientific technique, and tells the story of individuals who developed certain research methods. There are many case studies in the book, actual murder cases in which time of death was important to finding a defendant guilty or not guilty.

Despite the gruesome details in the book, Sachs successfully engages her audience. She gives character and relatability to the scientists in her story. She breaks up the morbid details with bits of humor. Sachs describes a study of how blowflies would reproduce on the clothing of a corpse. The research used pigs, so the researcher requested donations of underwear at her university. The story got out to the media and the researcher was afraid her project would be shut down. “There are some things you just can’t find at Goodwill.” Sachs comments, “But if pigs in black net stockings and spike heels would further crime science, so be it.”

Many parts of the book had wince-worthy descriptions of insects and maggots munching on dead bodies. This book is not for those with weak stomachs. However, the stories of the actual murder cases would probably be interesting to readers who enjoy true crime stories. The book could be a good resource for defense attorneys. Corpse did a good job of making science readable.


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