‘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. Like any opportunistic scavenger, it will start with your eyeballs and lips. I’ve seen the result.‘
Regular visitors to this parish will know that I have a long-standing fascination with human anatomy, surgery and pathology. Two of my stand-out books of last year were Do No Harm, the memoirs of brain surgeon Henry Marsh; and Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker, a novel that spends much of its time in the otherworldly environment of the dissecting room (and is one of the few books to test my kevlar-coated gag reflex to its limits). This interest goes back to primary school. Aged 9 or 10 and asked to write about ‘What I Want To Be When I Grow Up’, I vividly remember asking my teacher how to spell ‘pathologist’. I blame too many Monday night episodes of Quincy M.E.
In Judy Melinek’s extraordinary memoir we meet the real-life equivalent of Jack Klugman’s growling Medical Examiner. Working Stiff describes the two years Melinek spent working as an M.E. in New York, a job she took on the recommendation of a university tutor: ‘All kinds of great ways to die there.’ These words are borne out by Melinek’s book, which describes many striking and singular examples of death: bad luck (one man is killed by a lightning strike, his shoes blown off and a bald patch seared onto his scalp); appalling criminality (during a street fight one man is thrown down a sewer pipe, and is boiled to death by the scalding water flowing through it); and plain stupidity (high on crystal meth and locked out of his apartment, a man attempts to rappel down the side of the building tied to a television cable; it snaps and he falls to several floors to his death). As Melinek says early on, ‘staying alive… is mostly common sense.‘
Melinek’s role as Medical Examiner is not only to carry out the autopsy but also to lead the investigation into an individual’s death, working alongside the police where this is necessary, and issuing the final death certificate. Melinek sees her role as much of a much wider process – the autopsy can tell one a great deal about the manner of someone’s death, but often this is not the full story. As the book progresses, Melinek does an excellent job of turning these cases into real people, and reminding us that they once had rich lives and families, for whom she must also care. ‘The dead body is not my only patient. The survivors are the ones who really matter. I work for them too.‘
Melinek’s job is not just about the autopsy itself (although this forms a large part of it) but also includes visits to death and crime scenes.These visits provide some of the book’s most visceral, stomach churning descriptions, of corpses left to become fresh meat for maggots. Melinek also gives any cat owners reading the book pause for thought: ‘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. Like any opportunistic scavenger, it will start with your eyeballs and lips. I’ve seen the result.‘
An extraordinary shadow hangs over the book, one not fully realised until close to the end. Melinek acted as Medical Examiner in New York from Summer 2001 until the middle of 2003. Her time there coincided with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, an event which resulted in the deaths of 2,871 people. Even at a distance of over 10 years one can only wonder what life in the city at that time must have been like. I recall hearing the news at work and (in an age before Twitter and online rolling news), sneaking out so I could head for the nearest pub and television set to find out what was going on.
Melinek’s description of that day and the ones that followed it bring the tragedy alive once more, and in a wholly new way. We empathise not just with the people who were killed and their families, but also those brave souls who dealt with the aftermath and provided grieving relatives with some explanation of what happened to their loved ones. Along with the rest of her team Melinek was tasked with identifying the dead, with in many cases only fragments left to guide them. Her beautifully clear prose (one of my highlights of the book, and undoubtedly a product of her experience in explaining complex medical information to the public) is particularly apparent here, and a reflection of her team’s steadfast professionalism and empathy.
I’d been waiting to read Working Stiff for several months, and I’m pleased to say that it lived up to all my expectations. I’m in admiration of anyone who can do a job like Melinek’s, but to do it under such grave and difficult circumstances is incredible. Her commitment to the job is testament not only to her training but also her strength of character. Interested as I might be in all things pathological, I find it hard to believe that I would have coped in as admirable a way as Melinek did.