Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion.
Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.
As a lover of medical and medically-adjacent nonfiction I happily dug into Education of a Coroner. CSI without all the fake glamour? I’m there!
The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is from Holmes’ point of view but we’re actually following the author, a professional acquaintance. Bateson goes through Holmes’ records and conducts a series of interviews that form the backbone of the book. I found myself wishing he had done more synthesis of the material and gotten into Holmes’ head instead of quoting him verbatum. There’s a big difference between “Holmes thought” and “When I asked Holmes about it he said, ‘Well, I thought…'”
Luckily this distance only occurs in the sections dealing with Holmes’ career. A large portion book is chock-a-block with fascinating cases from his 36 years on the job – suicides that may not have been suicides, genius (and not so genius) murder methods, clues that make or break an investigation.
As a medical interpreter I found the chapter on death notifications the most interesting. If Holmes tried to couch the news in niceties it wouldn’t be conveyed at all.
He also learned to avoid saying something like “she succumbed” or “she didn’t survive” or “it was fatal”. he had to say the word dead or killed. If he didn’t, if he said something like, “Unfortunately, she didn’t make it,” the next questions were “How bad was it?” “Where is she?” “Can I go talk to her?” because the person didn’t hear. It was way too much information coming from a total stranger without any context or preamble.
All in all Education of a Coroner is a fun read for those who want to know what the job involves in real life. While I found the beginning and end slow the amazing cases in the middle make up for it.
Thanks to Scribner and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.