Book Reviews

The Education of a Coroner

Author: John Bateson
Published: August 15, 2017 by Scribner
Genre: Nonfiction; True Crime
Hardcover: 368 pages
Stars: 4 out of 5
To Purchase: The Education of a Coroner

This book follows the nearly forty year career of Ken Holmes, first as a licensed embalmer at a funeral home, all the way through to his elected position of Coroner in Marin County, California. His experiences are told in a series of short stories that range from his on-the-job visits to San Quentin Prison, to investigating Golden Gate Bridge jumpers, as suicides off the bridge are called.

This book was fascinating to me, and I found myself glued to the pages at times. It went into the physiological aspects of death, such as specifically how rigor mortis helps determine time of death. It also covered investigative techniques, such as tell tale signs that strangulation took place, or the difference between patent prints and latent prints. I didn’t realize before reading this book how much the coroner’s office actively investigates death, as opposed to only performing an autopsy. When the coroner’s office is called to a scene, it’s the death investigator that arrives first. Holmes is responsible in numerous cases, for discovering what initially appears to be a death from natural causes, or a suicide, is in fact a homicide. The book reads a lot like a true crime novel, but really taking the reader through the death investigator’s process in detail.

The book also delves into the more human aspects of the job, such as interviewing witnesses, managing bystanders, and notifying family members of a death, all told in a respectful manner.
The stories are never sensationalized. Holmes has the utmost respect for both the deceased and their loved ones, and it comes across in his story telling. He says “Coroners deal with death, but their purpose is to find answers for the living” and he took this very seriously, sometimes taking years before the answers are found, and as is the case in real life, sometimes answers are never found – there was not a tidy ending to some of the stories.

This book was so fascinating to me, maybe partly because my grandfather was a coroner. He was a doctor, and he was one of the first with a medical background to be appointed to deputy coroner back in the 1930’s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I find it interesting that back then, and still today, coroners do not need to have a medical background to become a coroner.

If you like true crime, forensics, or homicide investigation, I think you will find this book fascinating. It comes out on August 15, 2017.

Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing my copy; it was a pleasure to provide my honest thoughts here.

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