TV can't measure up: Forensic Investigator

Forensic Investigator: True Stories from the Life of a Country Crim

Publisher: Penguin Australia
Length: 262 pages
Author: Esther McKay
Price: $32.95
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2009-08

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.