Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths by Stefan Timmermans

Robert Roose, MD

Each chapter is interesting and informative, full of historical anecdotes, careful accounts of autopsy procedure, and thorough explanations of forensic logic.

Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Length: 360
Price: $30.00
Author: Stefan Timmermans
US publication date: 2006-06

It is possible that you are as weary as I am of the rash of glossy accounts of forensic science saturating popular media. If so, you will be pleased to learn that someone recently decided to turn the (autopsy) tables and put the authority of medical examiners under the microscope. Because while it is clear that the popularity of C.S.I. and Patricia Cornwell's fiction has uncovered a latent interest in forensics, there is a much deeper significance to the work of these experts never broached by these storylines. Not until Stefan Timmermans' well-researched book Postmortem can we truly start to understand the complex sociological questions that underlie the investigations and explanations of unnatural deaths.

Off-screen forensic pathology is just not that sensational. Trust me, I know; pronouncing someone dead and determining the cause of death is rarely suspenseful and never glamorous. It is, however, an extremely interesting cultural phenomenon -- which is why Timmermans, an academic sociologist, is the best man for the case. Just as medical examiners "bring society and body together to make sense of suspicious death" in the morgue, he spent three years observing autopsies, interviewing pathologists, and studying cases in order to probe deep into the processes of forensic decision-making.

Unlike its subject matter, Postmortem reveals its origins quickly. In the opening lines, Timmermans asserts that "death is not an individual but a social event" and that the social order of dying is disrupted when death is not expected or easily explained. Just like when Rico found the hotdog lodged deep in Edith Kirky's throat, these suspicious deaths, which account for nearly 20 percent of registered deaths, fall under the jurisdiction of the local coroner or medical examiner. And by integrating autopsy results, toxicology tests, medical files, and data gathered at the scene, these experts become the "authorities" who are responsible for the final classification of such deaths.

On the surface it seems like a straightforward, albeit technically difficult, task. However, as Timmermans shows us through six dense case studies, there is nothing simple about it -- and as is often the stereotype of academics, he favors broadening the discussion instead of focusing it. He asks grand questions: When do deaths become suspicious? How do death investigators satisfy audiences with conflicting expectations? What is professional authority? And he is honest about the lack of answers, instead providing a framework, somewhat hokily organized around hope, to think about them.

It is with this perspective, executed with an exhaustive attention to detail, that makes Postmortem such a successful book. Building off actual cases, he describes how "stenosis by atherosclerotic plaque" becomes death by heart attack in one man but not another, or how "the 51 percent rule" determines suicide. Each chapter is interesting and informative, full of historical anecdotes, careful accounts of autopsy procedure, and thorough explanations of forensic logic. Yet Timmermans' strength as a social analyst shines in his presentation of how forensic credibility is judged at "The Nanny Trial." Taking transcripts from the court records of the Louise Woodward shaken-baby trial, he puts the separate expert witnesses (along with their evidence and qualifications) back on the stand. But this time, with the acuity of a scientist who has previously published on professional power, he provides a running commentary of how the discussions of evidence reflect the principles of forensic expertise and will inform future practice standards. In this way, Postmortem is not a typical case; it never closes, but rather evolves with time.

Through it all, Postmortem deconstructs the authority granted to medical examiners and masterfully explains in what ways the character of their work influences "how we understand and give meaning to suspicious deaths." Ably mixing extensive research and problem posing, it is a text of great depth.

Unfortunately within the strength of Postmortem is also its struggle. The bulky technical passages will alienate some readers; the redundant theorizing will bore others. At times, Postmortem is too academic and theoretical for its own form, the glaring proof lying in 74 pages of footnotes and references affixed to his text.

As we know, in most cases, the occurrence of death is absolute. In some fashion a heart stops beating; blood stops flowing; breathing becomes erratic; and a brain stops functioning. However, as Timmermans exhaustively shows us, in the world of unnatural death, little else is so clear. With Postmortem, he seeks to get under your skin and into your head, and if you can stomach the depth of its rigor, you will be rewarded.





The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.


12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.


Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.


Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.


Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.


'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.


Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.


Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.


Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.


Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.


Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.