I first met the American crime writer Elaine Viets at Malice Domestic two or three years ago and very much enjoyed chatting to her. Elaine now has a book coming out with Severn House in the UK at the end of this month; it has the rather nice title A Star is Dead and it's the fourth in the Angela Richman Death Investigator series. So what exactly are death investigators? Elaine explains...
"There’s a new crime profession in the US – death investigator – and my Angela Richman series features a working death investigator. A Star Is Dead is set in mythical Chouteau County, a 'ten-square-mile pocket of white privilege' in the Midwest. Angela works for the Chouteau County medical examiner. She investigates all unexpected and unexplained deaths: accidents, murders, suicides. She's responsible for the dead person. The police handle the scene – everything but the body.
To make sure Angela had the most accurate forensics, I took the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course at St. Louis University's School of Medicine. Death investigators started in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1978 because of a shortage of forensic pathologists. DIs are sort of like forensic paralegals. They are trained, but don't have medical degrees like pathologists. Students came from as far away as Australia for this course. I sat between an Illinois police chief and a working DI from Austin, Texas.
Here's one day's agenda for the death investigator course:
In the morning, we learned about gunshot wound fatalities, explosion-related deaths, motor vehicle fatalities and drowning. At lunch we watched a video about teen driving and alcohol that made me want to trade my car for an armored personnel carrier.
Then it was alcohol-related deaths, suicide, blunt-trauma fatalities and more. I was grateful that the airplane crash investigations weren't on the same day I flew home.
For more than eight hours, the death investigator course studied photos and videos from crime scenes and autopsies. I'm sure if I saw – and smelled – real autopsies, I'd be pea green and upchucking. The photos gave enough distance that I could tolerate the gruesome illustrations. By the end of the course, I even watched an autopsy video during lunch.
The course made me a different woman. Not only do I have the latest forensics – I became a temporary vegetarian. It was months before I could eat pasta with red sauce or cut up a chicken. After all, people are a hundred-plus pounds of raw meat.
Oh, and if you have a "Born to Lose" tattoo? That almost guarantees you'll live up that promise. I lost count of how many times I saw that tattoo in autopsy photos. The most dramatic was a man with "Born to Lose" in black Gothic letters on his forehead.
Right under the bullet hole."