Tom Nolan usually reviews mysteries of the fictional variety for the Wall Street Journal. He loves the work of Ross MacDonald (the late Kenneth Millar) and has written biographies both of MacDonald (the aptly titled Ross MacDonald) and of MacDonald’s gumshoe hero, Lew Archer (that one is squirreled away in The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator).
Nolan recently reviewed Barbara Butcher’s What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator for the Journal. It’s just a little off Nolan’s customary beat. The book is “a candid and blunt-spoken memoir from a former death investigator in New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.” Butcher investigated more than 5,500 deaths and 650 homicides in the course of her career as a medicolegal investigator. Butcher had to face down her own demons before finding her career and then continue to face them down on the job.
Nolan concludes his review with some familiar advice that hit home with me in this context. He writes:
Ms. Butcher recounts her struggle to stay sober in spite of every temptation her job threw at her. Early in her career as an investigator, she asked a medical examiner who had performed an autopsy on an 8-year-old rape victim how she could stand to do such work. “When you leave here each day,” the woman counseled, “surround yourself with things of beauty. Enjoy nature and art and food and music and love. Just do it, and don’t skip a day.”
The advice helped save Ms. Butcher, both professionally and personally. Her remarkably candid and sensitive memoir reveals how she learned to navigate a heart-wrenching line of work and to overcome her own demons.
Nolan’s review, behind the Journal’s paywall, is “Scenes of the Departed.”
UPDATE: John advises that the review is generally accessible here.