TV can’t measure up: Forensic Investigator

It’s hard to ignore the popularity of police procedural television shows, more specifically, those dealing in forensics and crime scene investigation. Investigators, police, and other specialists are all over prime time across the world, filling viewers’ apparent hunger for the more gruesome aspects of crime and criminal detection. Most TV watchers are no doubt aware that real life is more disturbing than fiction, but we keep believing that CSI‘s Catherine Willows and Cold Case‘s Lily Rush can continue their roles among the dead without too much personal injury. At any rate, they’re together enough to put their make-up on each morning and keep the sharp comments coming.

Australian forensic investigator Esther Mckay knows all too intimately another side of life as a crime scene investigator. She documented her time on the front line in her 2005 memoir, Crime Scene: True Stories from the Life of a Forensic Investigator, which, after outlining the details of her daily workload including attending and investigating crime scenes, viewing bodies, and dealing with perpetrators, paperwork, and family members of victims without a great deal of support from her employers, ends with her eventual psychological collapse. Life on the front line, Mckay informs, is far from pretty.

In her new book, Forensic Investigator: True Stories from the Life of a Country Crime Scene Cop, Mckay builds on the highs and lows of her own career by presenting that of Detective Sergeant Geoff Berlusconi, forensic investigator serving in country New South Wales. This other account of the hardship endured by people in these particular roles shows how men are just as susceptible as women to the grief and trauma they witness daily — often multiple times per day.

The book is very much Berlusconi’s biography, detailing his entry into the police force, his initial stationing in rural New South Wales, to his time in Wagga, a town of 45,000 people and the state’s largest inland city. During his 20+ years on the force, Berlusconi witnesses tragedies CSI‘s weekly budget could little afford to replicate, and, really, wouldn’t want to. His first major call, for instance, is to a car crash involving a large truck and a car full of six members of one family. The car, Berlusconi unravels, has drifted across the centre line due, most likely, to driver fatigue, and has collided with the truck, which rolled right on over the top, trapping the occupants and crushing them flat. The occupants of the car included a baby. Mckay’s description of Berlusconi’s view of the child trapped in the wrecked vehicle sets the scene, really, for the kinds of horrors the investigator will have to deal with in his career.

Over the next decade and a half, Berlusconi attends to plane crashes with multiple victims, murders, suicides, the deaths of his friends (including the self-inflicted shooting death of a mate who’s brain particles Berlusconi must collect from a pool side), and, seminally for Geoff, the same-night accidental drowning of a set of four-year-old twins.

How does a man with a family and a so-called normal life deal with these kinds of tragedies? According to Mckay, almost entirely on his own. Although the New South Wales ruling bodies attempt to introduce peer support programs and hold debriefing sessions, they don’t do enough, and slowly, as we witness in this story, depression takes over, and breakdowns begin.

Mckay and Berlusconi make a tremendous partnership in this book, with Berlusconi opening up his life, his career, and sharing his most inner demons with the author and colleague. It’s clear Mckay’s understanding of Berlusconi’s role throguhout the book, as she writes with exemplary knowledge, and allows the average reader to understand difficult, technical processes involved in detection.

Mckay writes with a purpose, too, beyond telling Berlusconi’s story. Her desire to better inform current officers of their rights, and of the dangers of such traumatic environments drives the book, as well. We learn that a large number of officers of all ranks and responsibilities suffer depression, stress, and symptoms of or fully-blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and need assistance, which Mckay has been heralded for offering through her Police Post Trauma Support Group.

This is a heavy book, extremely hard to endure at times, but is, as it needs to be, educational and informative. It’s an eye into an industry so glamourised by network television and bestselling novels, and Mckay writes to the grit of it all. While TV tantalises us with its quirky characters, witty banter, and quick resolutions, this book uncovers how it really is — horrible, heartbreaking, lightless, and, often, maggot-infested. She succeeds in lifting the lid in this way, as well as to celebrate a man who gave his time, much of his life, to assisting the people of New South Wales, only to end up amid broken marriages, an alcohol problem, paranoia, and morbid depression.

If the ending is positive, it’s because these investigators endured to tell their stories in the hope that others might not follow suit.

Esther Mckay’s website is Her first book, Crime Scene, is also available from Penguin Australia.