Written in bone: A true crime book

Dr Sue Black’s first book All That Remains, which detailed her career as a forensic anthropologist was a tour-de-force. Not only did we get to hear about cases she had worked on, ranging from dismembered bodies, to identifying the dead in mass graves, but she also opened up about death. Dr Black is in a unique position, having spent her adult life working with death, to talk about this subject that is still taboo for many. On finishing the book I found myself feeling quite differently about death, and viewing it more as an essential part of life than something to be feared. In her second book, Written in Bone, released on the 10th June, is constructed in a similar vein with remembrances of a variety of criminal cases she has worked on, hooked around the central conceit of touring around the skeleton.

Before we move on to the details it is important to ask a question. Is this really true crime? I suppose that it depends greatly on how narrow or broad a definition of true crime you like to entertain. If you want straight narrative storytelling, about a specific, or series of specific crimes, which most likely are linked by the perpetrators, then no this isn’t true crime. I am never a fan of being too prescriptive about the boundaries of genre, mainly because some of the most interesting books are exactly those that play with those boundaries, and leave them mailable. So I take a wide view of what can be true crime, and what is not. For me Black’s work part memoire, part instruction book, and part true crime, and it’s inability to be easily pigeon-holed, to slip so elegantly between man-made terms which mainly serve marketing purposes, is just one more thing to highly recommend it.

I have never thought much about my skeleton, but having read from my head to my toes, I feel like again, her writing has changed my relationship with myself. The skull is phenomenal, ribs are fascinating, feet really are a miracle and harris lines… Oh, the harris lines are profound, and tragic, and sad, in their healing Black exposes the kind of painful beauty that reveals the human condition and which is mainly found in poetry.

It is a sign that Black is a talented writer, not just scientist, that she can translated these parts of ourselves, that literally no one ever wants to see, into not just a compelling read but an education tool that reframes our internal world. She opens up her thoughts and experiences for us to inspect, and we find in her a gentle humanity, quiet acceptance, and a kindness and respect for the dead that brooks no fear, and tells only truth.

I was pleased to hear that the good Doctor has recently been made a Dame, for her services to science. And while I in no way want to diminish those accomplishments, she has also done as great a service in helping us all to see ourselves and others with new eyes.

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