***This book as reviewed for the San Francisco and Seattle Book Reviews, and for Scribner via Netgalley
Education of a Coroner by John Bateson tells the intriguing experiences of Ken Holmes, former coroner of Marin County in California. For forty-odd years, Holmes worked in the coroner’s office, first as a death investigator, then later as assistant coroner and head coroner.
Coroners are different than medical examiners. They are elected officials who may, or may not, as in Holmes’ case, be a medical doctor. If they are not, then bodies for autopsy are contracted out to mortuaries or hospitals.
Through his stories, it is easy to see Holmes is devoted to the truth, and is a compassionate empath. Cases were pursued to the most logical conclusion, and some stayed open for years! As an independent agent, Holmes did not weigh favour to law enforcement or the courts. He followed the truth. There were cases he pushed as murder when others would have it not so, and other cases, such as that of Sammie in San Quentin, where he stuck to truth rather than exculpatory silence.
It was so sad to realise how prevalent suicide is, especially from the Golden Gate Bridge. It was in part thanks to Holmes that sturdier protections were added to the bridge to discourage jumpers. Wolfram’s story hit me hard. I fear dying, and no one being able to identify my body (or just not care…). It was heartening to learn he was finally identified. That family found resolution.
I’ve always loved forensics. I was set to be a forensic anthropologist before health concerns put paid to that. It was a good thing, in retrospect. I would have long since burnt out. I think I’d love to meet Holmes just to sit and listen to his stories in person. Death captivates us all (says the person watching Most Haunted…), whether we acknowledge it or not. It is the ultimate unknown. Coroners and medical examiners dance that blurred line on a daily basis, becoming close friends with Thanatos. This book tells of murders, suicides, accidental death, and natural deaths. There is Sammie, the San Quentin prisoner, dead unnecessarily, Tupac, the rap star murdered too yoUng, overdoses like that of young River Phoenix, and more.
Bateson is a masterful storyteller, making for captivating reading. Humour is, by necessity, threaded through the narrative. Mirth, bordering on gallows betimes, helps defuse the wiry coils of tension that confronting death winds in the body and mind.
Referring to the FBI van as the ‘Costco for forensics’ or noting that ‘For one thing, Bertha was dead and not going anywhere until Holmes okay’d it, so she could wait’, injects levity into solemn situations, which helps when reading such weighty material, and is critical when confronted by it in the field, day after day. That lesson my group and I learned fairl quick!
????? Highly recommended for those interested in forensics or memoirs.