- I really enjoyed this book. As well as giving lots of detail on the work undertaken by a forensic pathologist, it’s insightful into the mind of someone doing a job that is so necessary, yet one that hardly anyone would want to do given the general disgust at the sight and smell of dead bodies and – as the author eventually finds out – the cumulative effect of such contact and reflection on the mental health of anyone who is not a psychopath1.
- I’ve not found the time to research the SIDS controversy, other than reading Wikipedia: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Wikipedia: Sally Clark. It has always struck me as just a way of saying “no idea” – but it is of such importance to determine whether babies have died of natural causes or from maltreatment, and the costs of getting the judgement wrong are enormous either way. And, if the death should be from natural causes, it is important to determine what parental practices might unknowingly lead to infant deaths.
- I was intrigued by the account of a barrister substantially ignorant of medicine being allowed to harangue an expert witness for days on end and try to pick apart his report, as well as coming up with absurd causes of death2 of his own, as though he were himself an expert witness. I’d have thought that the barrister would be allowed to call his own witness, who might be allowed to cross-examine the other expert, but it seems that a “witness” is a witness, expert or not, and can be cross-examined, including having their character and credibility undermined for trivial slip-ups.
- Anyone who’s an aficionado of Scandi-noir and the like knows that there are strains on the personal lives of anyone who is – and has to be – married to the job. Dr. Shepherd seems to have done his best to balance his two lives, but it’s not really possible, and I know from my own experience that it’s difficult to be even-handed as a project you’re caught up in is always “more interesting” than the routines at home.
- More could be said. I’ve retained the two Amazon Reviews below despite now having written my own. I maintain that the second is spiteful and includes irrelevancies, though is right to raise the SIDS issue.
Back Cover Blurb
- Top forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd has performed over 23,000 autopsies. A detective in his own right, he must solve the mystery of sudden or unexplained deaths: how did this person die?
- In the pursuit of the truth, he has tackled serial killers, natural disasters, ‘perfect murders’ and freak accidents. His evidence has put killers behind bars, freed the innocent and turned open-and-shut cases on their heads. Yet all this has come at huge personal cost.
- In Unnatural Causes he tells us the story not only of the bodies and cases that have haunted him most, but also how to live a life steeped in death.
- Richard Shepherd
- Was born in West London but grew up in Watford. At the local grammar school he was introduced to a medical textbook smuggled into the classroom by a friend which opened his eyes to the world of crime and murder, setting him on a lifelong quest to understand death in its many forms. He trained as a doctor at St George's Hospital medical school at Hyde Park Corner, qualifying in 1977 and then completed his postgraduate training as a forensic pathologist in 1987. He immediately joined what was then the elite forensic department at Guy's Hospital.
- He has been involved nationally and internationally in the forensic investigation of thousands of deaths from unnatural causes, from headline-making murders to mass natural disasters, and many sudden and unexplained deaths that his investigations showed were from natural causes or due to accidents. His skills and expertise still remain in demand around the world.
- Positive Review (5 stars)
- This is an eminently readable account of the life of a forensic pathologist. Dr Shepherd balances his professional work with the effect on his marriage and his personal life and thus the reader gets to know him as a person, as a human being. The personal details are important as they make the autobiography more rounded, offsetting the cut and thrust of the professional side against the ordinariness of the home life, the fantastic, bizarre even, against the mundane. It would have been easy to have just concentrated on his work, to ignore the private side, but that would have been a mistake and one that, fortunately, Dr Shepherd doesn't make.
- How he got on with the various authorities and his colleagues, giving evidence in court, was also interesting, as was the whole Post Traumatic Stress Disorder saga, which, it seems, will remain with him, even though he will find it easier to cope with as time goes on.
- For me, the book has provided useful insights (for the benefit of someone who is writing a crime thriller) into post mortem procedures, effects of different trauma, accidental or deliberate, on a body, how a body decomposes, etc, etc. A thoroughly gripping book from start to finish and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
- Negative Review (1 star)
- So I had this book recommended to me by another medical colleague who raved about 'the honesty' and openness of the author and this juxtaposition with his scientific insight and knowledge. I have to say that I found his writing smug and somewhat arrogant in that he seemed always to have thought about critical difficulties ahead of them happening such as "I remember thinking to myself at the time of Rachel Nickell's death that it was unlikely that Colin Stagg was the murderer" but then doing nothing about it. Additionally, he seemed to get certain things absolutely wrong. The Sally Clarke case was the tipping point for me where Shepherd speaks highly about the now very discredited work of Prof Roy Meadows and others yet says next to nothing about the fact that Sally Clarke's conviction was overturned because their work was nonsense! He bemoans the fact that they were unlucky and how any professional would have made the same call, but this just sounds like an unwillingness to consider that they were plain wrong to me!
- If you want a book that pretends to be a casebook on a Forensic Pathologist's work, and you don't mind having to wade through some padding, this might be worth a shot. If you find it a bit tedious to have to read someone's opinions on matters through the lens of a white middle class male4 who is clearly very pro establishment and doesn't want to question or even consider what the alternative might be, steer clear.
In-Page Footnotes ("Shepherd (Richard) - Unnatural Causes")
- The case in point is of an assault with a metal object leading to over 100 contusions that – argued the barrister – might have been caused by falling down seven flights of stairs.
- Who, outside of a Laurel and Hardy film, has ever fallen down seven flights of stairs?
- The many reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive – and half of the negative ones aren’t about the text itself – but I’ve selected a positive review pretty much at random, and the only negative review that makes any substantive points.
- What has this ad hominem comment got to do with the merits of the book, or the author for that matter?
- This review – by “Joanne” – is rather spiteful, but the points in the first paragraph deserve investigation.
- Penguin, 2018
- Sub-Title: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain's Top Forensic Pathologist
- Present from Chris
- On loan to Julie
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)