All that remains

All That Remains, a new book by forensic scientist Sue Black, pleases our reviewer. Published by Doubleday, UK price £16.99.

Death is waiting patiently for you, and for me, and this inevitable meeting we try to postpone as long as possible. But Sue Black rushes towards it at every opportunity. She surrounds herself with the dead because her lifelong passion is understanding the life they had lived. For Professor Dame Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist – one of the best in the world – and examines the dead to find who they were, how they lived and how they died. Sensitively, she reminds us of the agony of the living who are left behind to mourn their dead.

This passion was sparked by a job in a local butcher’s when she was 12. She spent all her school holidays “up to my elbows in muscle, bone, blood and viscera”. It took her to the pinnacle of her trade at the University of Dundee. This is where you might end up if you – like many – donate your body to the education of the next generation of forensic anthropologists.

Her autobiography is a fascinating read that takes us through the detail of how DNA works, the structure of the body, and why some parts of us survive and others disappear, while some leave a trace – enough to win a conviction in court. A pedant would suggest there is too much detail and skip these pages, but they give us an idea of the sheer technical detail and pure science involved.

She takes us through various family deaths. Would you envy her uncle Willie? He collapsed and suddenly died, face down in a bowl of Heinz tomato soup at the age of 83 at a family meal, surrounded by his nearest and dearest after a life well lived.

There are good deaths and there are bad deaths. Her work can be a descent into hell. Consider this description of her job after she volunteered to go to Kosovo to identify massacre victims after the men and boys of a village had been first herded by Serbs into a house, then machine-gunned, and the house set on fire. Three months of a Balkan summer heat had taken its toll on the bodies: “They were boiling with maggots, fragmented and partly scattered and eaten by the scavenging animals.” She had to work on her knees without gloves to get close enough to try to identify every body part, every bullet case, every tiny scrap of evidence that would identify a body and the perpetrator of the crime.

She takes us from the individual to the massive 250,000 dead in the 2004 tsunami, and how she agitated for the UK government to set up a Disaster Victim Identification unit to train UK police officers in identification procedure for UK citizens involved in disasters home and abroad.

Her accounts of the process involved in trying to identify bodies found in the UK surely make this book required reading for aspiring crime novelists. The story of the dismembered man found scattered all over southern England is surely worth the price of the book alone. Spoiler alert: her work resulted in a guilty plea and a life sentence. Then there is the tale of the still-unidentified man, dead for probably six months, found hanging from a tree on the golf course at Balmore. We know a lot about him, but not yet who he was. Not for him the long, glowing obituary of the over-privileged under-achievers afflicted on readers by many UK newspapers.

So there we have it: death in all its glory. She even tells us about ‘Arthur’, who has planned his own exit strategy and has a code word he’ll leave on her answerphone during a weekend when he knows the phone won’t be answered. He’s bequeathed his body to the students. His relationship with death can perhaps be described as the same as hers – she says it’s one of “comfortable camaraderie”.

Yours may be the same after you finish this readable and entertaining account of life, not quite from the ‘other side’, but pretty damned close to it.