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Time of Death - Jessica Snyder Sachs

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Author: Jessica Snyder Sachs / 270 pages / Publisher: Qpd

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      07.10.2012 13:35
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      An interesting, if occasionally overly-detailed, history of attempts to determine time of death

      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.

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