Everybody knows forensic science is hot hot hot right now, with countless flavors of CSI:Insert City Name Here playing on TV sets across the land, loads of true crime documentaries piecing forensic evidence together for viewers, and any number of books by Patricia Cornwall, Jeffrey Deaver, Karin Slaughter, and others. Dirty Harry and Martin Riggs haven't quite been replaced, but they've undoubtedly been supplemented by perhaps the most unlikely of heroes: the geeky doctors and pathologists who a generation ago were the quirky, somewhat demented minor characters who provided the hero with clues but never really stepped from the shadows.
Emily Craig's book, Teasing Secrets from the Dead, is an autobiographical account of a forensic anthropologist's career, from reconstructing the bodies of the Branch Davidians who died in the flames of Waco to the night shift triage of the body identification center in the shadow of the World Trade Center. It is a fascinating look at the real world of forensic science, although it is quicky evident that neither the book nor the career are for the squeamish.
As Kathy Reichs, a doctor and novelist herself, writes in the introduction, there remains a considerable amount of confusion about the difference between a pathologist and an anthropologist. Her answer:
Many fictional scientists are pathologists - specialists who work with soft tissue. Emily Craig and I are anthropologists - specialists who work with bone. Freshly dead or relatively intact corpse: pathologist. Skeleton in an attic, charred body in a Cessna, bone fragments in a wood chipper: anthropologist. Using skeletal indicators, we address questions of identity, time and manner of death, and postmortem treatment of the corpse.
Craig herself didn't start out as an anthropologist - far from it, in fact. Initially working as a medical illustrator at an orthopedic clinic, her "career" begin when her police detective boyfriend suggested she might be able to help an unsolved investigation regarding an unidentified body that had washed up on to a riverbank with a bullet hole in his head. The police asked her to do a clay facial reconstruction of the victim, she agreed. But when she was escorted into the morgue for the first time, "I had my first whiff of the smell of decayed human flesh. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced, and I felt an overpowering sense of repulsion." Yet at the same time she was intrigued and compelled by the "mass of bone and decaying tissue" that had once been a person, and her efforts to help the police led her on the path to her current position as the forensic anthropologist for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.