ScienceThrillers.com book review of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, MD, and T.J. Mitchell.
Note: Dr. Melinek appeared on NPR’s Science Friday on August 8; listen here.
Publication date: August 12, 2014
Summary (from the publisher):
The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s “rookie season” as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases—hair-raising and heartbreaking and impossibly complex—that shaped her as both a physician and a mother.
Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation—performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.
Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies—and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law & Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.
Fictional portrayals of forensic science and medical examiners are popular in TV, movies, and books these days. Have you ever watched CSI or a similar program and wished you could have drinks with a forensic pathologist and get her to talk, telling real stories from the strange world of death?
Then this book is definitely for you.
Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner is Judy Melinek’s story of her training in forensic pathology at an extraordinary place (New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner) at an extraordinary time (2001-2003, spanning the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Amerithrax anthrax attacks, and the crash of American Airlines Flight 587). Written with her husband and co-author TJ Mitchell, Melinek’s memoir is a sensitive, human story which illustrates how medical examiners are real doctors who serve the living with compassion, even though their patients are dead.
Of course, Working Stiff is packed with true stories from the morgue, some funny, some pathetic, some deeply tragic, all human, and all appealing to the reader’s curiosity. The reader must bring a touch of morbid to their curiosity as well: descriptions of the nuts-and-bolts anatomic business of doing an autopsy are an essential part of this book, so I can’t recommend it for those who are easily grossed out. Melinek and Mitchell do a masterful job of conveying the thrill of solving a medical mystery using clues left in the body and at the scene of death–and also relaying the frustration when the evidence leaves no definitive answers.
These stories are so good, I can imagine how the authors were bursting to tell them but couldn’t do so in the ordinary dinner conversation type of way (for obvious reasons). For example, who can resist the Mysterious Case of the Maraschino Donkey Dongs?
Throughout the book, Melinek reveals her admiration for her mentor Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, a medical examiner and teacher of the kind we all wish we had, a man of clarity and precision who lectures about things like “speculation built on a foundation of assumption.”
A great strength of Working Stiff is the narrator’s voice. Melinek comes across as a person we can relate to (except maybe for her tolerance for gore), and through whose eyes we can experience the world of death investigation. She says:
I get a kick out of fictionalized accounts of what I do for a living. The female ME with bedroom eyes, stiletto heels, and a lot of cleavage shows up at a gory, atmospherically ill-lit murder scene. Her diagnoses are instant and ironclad, the banter with her colleagues witty…I wore sensible shoes and a Medical Examiner windbreaker.
Melinek shares her apprehension of pet cats:
Your faithful golden retriever might sit next to your dead body for days, starving, but the tabby won’t. Your pet cat will eat you right away, with no qualms at all…I’ve seen the result.
(as a cat owner, I somehow sense this is true…)
On the question of whether her job makes her fearful in daily life:
It freed me from our six o’clock news phobias. Once I became on eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous…Staying alive, it turns out, is mostly common sense.
The majority of the book takes place in ordinary time (or what passes for that in NYC), but readers will be especially drawn to the final chapters which are set during the overwhelming tragedies of September and October 2001. Melinek and Mitchell tell the story of DM01 (Disaster Manhattan, 2001) with honesty and accuracy, with pathos, not melodrama. The authors handle this emotionally difficult territory successfully, eliciting tears in this reader while hitting the right notes of courage and hope. Readers will get a new understanding of the magnitude of the disasters, and the titanic nature of the forces unleashed when the planes crashed.
Working Stiff is a page-turning, engrossing book that reveals a hidden world and shows that the work of understanding death is actually a labor of life.
FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.