No photos, thank goodness

Pathologists are a creepy lot. Why would anyone want to make their living from fingering the dead? Richard Shepherd has written a book worthy of the great Keith Simpson

Our reviewer, J. Attrick, considers a new book by D. Richard Shepherd. Unnatural Causes: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist is published by Penguin/Michael Joseph. The price is £20, for 392 pages.

Why on earth would anyone want to spend their days sticking a scalpel into a corpse, cutting it open, extracting various slippery and smelly organs, putting them back and doing a quick stitching job to prevent them tumbling out again? Oh…I see.

Richard Shepherd reveals in this book, an account of his career, that he has cut up and examined around 23,000 corpses. Whether that makes him Britain’s “top forensic pathologist” (as  it says on the cover) I have no idea. It’s probably no more than a publisher’s boast to whip up sales; but he certainly has been one of the busiest. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his career trajectory follows an all too familiar pattern – youthful hope, a sense of optimism, a devotion to doing the best he is able, only to be gradually worn down by the tossers, nitwits, and jobsworths he encounters, until he comes to an acceptance of the world being rather stupid. I have good news for readers however – I think Dick Shepherd finds if not happiness then at least some balance by the end of the book.

430 forensic book

He has handled or been involved in some of the most notorious deaths of recent times, including Michael Ryan, who slaughtered 17 people (including himself) in Hungerford on 19 August 1987; Rachel Nickell, stabbed to death and sexually assaulted on Wimbledon Common on 15 July 1992; and the 51 people who drowned in the Marchioness disaster on the river Thames on 20 August 1989. Interspersed with the tales of his job is a continous thread dealing with his marriage which – predictably, right from the start – is obviously going to fail. Given his job, which becomes more stressful as it goes on, the only question is – how could it not?

Shepherd nods his gratitude and respect to Cedric Keith Simpson, the British pathologist who published in 1947 what remains the leading textbook on forensics, Forensic Medicine, a book containing such gruesomely disturbing photographs that I had to give away my copy. Once qualified, Shepherd joins Guy’s Hospital in the late 1980s, where the Department of Forensic Medicine was led by Dr. Iain West. I am still unsure whether Shepherd liked West, who comes across in the book as an arrogant and insensitive brute.

Almost the first case he has to deal with is Michael Ryan’s murder orgy in Hungerford in 1987. The shock of this event was enormous. Mass random killings seem like ten-a-penny in America, but they just didn’t happen in a sleepy place like Hungerford in the UK. It was only 30 years ago and (difficult to believe) the digital age hadn’t really started – no mobile phones, computers required a couple of people to carry them, DNA investigations were unknown.

Shepherd tells his story fairly straight, but it kept me engaged partly, no doubt, because of the subject matter, but also because I warmed to his honesty and self-deprecation. What humour there is in the book is, I guess, inadvertent. Thus when Michael Ryan’s mother, a dinner-lady, hears about his shooting she manages to get a lift home and walks up the road “past injured and dead people, approaching her son fearlessly. She said, ‘Stop it Michael!'” Like telling-off a naughty boy and – Michael being very bad indeed – he simply turns and shoots Mum dead too. Iain West, Shepherd’s boss, has been away on holiday when Hungerford happened and is furious that he missed this big job and that Shepherd had it all to himself: “Iain believed one of the stupidest parts of Ryan’s rampage was to do it while he, Iain, was on holiday.”

Treat yourself and buy a copy. Shepherd is a good writer who not only has updated Simpson’s Forensic Medicine; he has written a worthy successor to Simpson’s 1978 autobiography, Forty Years of Murder

Does anyone grow up in a ‘normal’ family? I rather doubt it, such are the vast quantities of misery memoirs published these days. Shepherd is no exception: a taciturn and occasionally volcanic father, a mother who died when he was nine from broncho-pneumonia, although the damage to her heart had been done much earlier by rheumatic fever, which could have been nipped in the bud had pencillin been invented. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel” writes Shepherd after the death of his mother, and this dislocation, the inability to feel or the denial of his feelings, is one of the dominant themes of the book. When I looked at the photos in Simpson’s book I immediately identified with the horrible depictions of death, imagining myself either in the photo or confronting what the photo depicted. Shepherd doesn’t tell us what his reaction was to the many photos Simpson presents of death and murder, and this is itself telling: I suspect he simply found them intriguing. But when he was young – and until quite recently, I suspect – he has either stifled his feelings or simply been without them. When his father announces that he is thinking of remarrying Shepherd writes: “I wanted to shout, ‘No!’ I said, ‘All right.'” He is happiest among the dead. When he encounters a deceased woman’s family he “left the room with relief, making a mental note to avoid the bereaved at all costs and stick to the safe world inhabited by the dead, with its facts, its measurements, its certainties. In their universe, there was a complete absence of emotion. Not to mention its ugly sister, pain.”

As well as a gift for gently dissecting the paradoxical, Shepherd chooses his words with care. After his father remarries he notices that “our mother was being gradually redacted” [my emphasis]. He notices that the colour of organs is vivid and pure: “The brain is white and grey  – and that is not the grey of a November sky, it is the silver-grey of darting fish.” He observes the bizarre; in one case he has been involved with the defendant is acquitted, only to reappear as a knife attacker in a later news story: “a slim and attractive young man of about eighteen had been knifed by a stranger three times. One stab wound, into the left lung, had very nearly proved fatal. By some miracle the victim had survived to identify his assailant: in fact, he was able to reveal that the man had hung over him and suggested that, since he was dying, a suitable last act might be to have sex.” The process of bodily decomposition can mislead: “at this stage of decomposition [bodies] become so dark that anyone finding one can wrongly assume a skinny Caucasian was in life an overweight black man.”And above all he reminds us that truth is malleable: “As a doctor I sought truth through facts. As a pathologist I was now learning that truth could be directly affected by choices I made, by how many facts I chose to study.”

431 autopsy head in body

Predictably enough Shepherd’s marriage falls apart under the strain. For two extremely busy people – his wife was training to be a doctor  as well as trying to run a household, with two children to care for (and he does care for his children, invoking a patronising attitude from his work colleagues, who pass on cases involving dead babies to him “because Dick loves children, give that one to him”) – it’s all too much. Shepherd has a breakdown and a psychiatrist diagnoses PTSD. For some reason Shepherd does not ask himself why his hero, Keith Simpson, never suffered PTSD, even though he must have endured a similar workload and seen just as many (if not more) ghastly corpses. Shepherd finds happiness however with a widowed forensic pathologist called Linda, and obtains some release through flying a light aircraft.

Shepherd touches on but does not labour the shoddiness that can result from the dim-wittedness of those agents of the state, the police.  While I realise that not all police are thick plods, law enforcement does seem to attract more than its fair share of the Mensa-challenged. Shepherd tells of a few encounters with the type, including one detective superintendent (no less) who insists that a huge knife-wound to a neck is clearly a murder and is annoyed to be told that it’s a suicide. “You can’t kill yourself and then dispose of the weapon. There’s no weapon here. This is a homicide,” says the plod. Shepherd insists that the knife must be somewhere close and the coppers are increasingly irritated with him: “‘No knife, no suicide,’ stated the detective firmly.” Of course Shepherd is proved right – but you will have to buy the book to discover why and how.

Treat yourself and buy a copy. Shepherd is a good writer who not only has updated Simpson’s Forensic Medicine; he has written a worthy successor to Simpson’s 1978 autobiography, Forty Years of Murder.