As true crime enjoys a recent surge in popularity, we have learned that the most compelling stories, and the most worthwhile ones, are told firsthand. Whether it is victims writing their true stories of trauma, or first responders recounting the harrowing details of a case, true crime readers tend to clamour for the authentic narrative that puts the true in true crime. The drive behind this might be because we see it as more ethical—which is debatable—but ultimately, I think we are always after a compelling story. Part memoir and part case history, Ryan Blumenthal’s Autopsy: Life in the Trenches with a Forensic Pathologist in Africa is a fast-paced look into the intense ups and downs of forensic pathology in a developing nation.
While Autopsy falls categorically under the true crime umbrella, its most compelling dimensions are characteristic of memoir. After undergoing rigorous training as a medical doctor and then as a forensic pathologist, Blumenthal has performed thousands of autopsies on a number of different patients with various death scenarios. Some of these autopsies have helped put criminals in prison for their crimes, and Blumenthal writes that this is and has always been his central goal. Autopsy covers Blumenthal’s training, his early years as a pathologist, as well as some of his most compelling cases.
“In this book, I will share a variety of cases studies that describe a few unique experiences and particular challenges faced by forensic pathologists on the African continent. This book is about my personal journey as a forensic pathologist in South Africa. The pathology of trauma in Africa is slightly different from that in the rest of the world.”
The tone of the book is far more casual and philosophical than most memoir/true crime texts. The book relies on the personal experiences of the author rather than the ‘facts’ of a particular case; however, that tone worked in this book’s favour. As someone who regularly confronts the scene of a crime and all of the physical, emotional, and situational sensations that come alongside that, Blumenthal is truly the best source on his own experiences. While Blumenthal always grounds his experiences in facts relating to statistics, disease, and autopsy procedure and equipment, he manages to insert his own refreshing perspective and tone. From his top five worst smells to the worst deaths he’s ever seen, the fastest and slowest ways to die, the future direction of forensic pathology, or who autopsies the forensic pathologist themselves, Blumenthal tells all. There is something very honest about Blumenthal’s book that I found especially compelling. He confronts his own biases and his own motivations at the same time that he reveals pathologist-specific tools of the trade that most readers might not know.
In addition to Blumenthal’s own compelling perspective, the author has worked on or encountered some fascinating cases of abnormal death. Blumenthal never lets us forget that working as a forensic pathologist in Africa is like nowhere else in the world. The threshold between human life and wildlife is geographically thin, and Blumenthal recounts harrowing deaths or injuries related to lion, snake, ostrich, crocodile, or elephant attacks, alongside many more. Additionally, electrical storms in Africa account for a number of lightning deaths that must also be investigated. That is not to mention the danger of disease or political/criminally motivated crimes. The danger presented in Africa due to wildlife, disease, or the climate are all aspects of forensic pathology that Blumenthal addresses in his book, but he does so through discussing his own experiences, as well as through underscoring the level of knowledge in other fields that a forensic pathologist must possess.
Additionally, Blumenthal discusses the challenges or problems behind investigating death in a developing nation. Limited resources constantly threaten the forensic pathologist’s work, and Blumenthal writes that many autopsies in outlying communities might not be performed by those licensed to do so. Blumenthal’s memoir is as much a commentary on the social and political situation in Africa as it is a discussion of the particulars of his job:
“You need the kind of infrastructure that allows you to investigate fatalities resulting from contagious and/or toxic agents. In other words, is the physical plant sufficiently safe for you to be able to do a good job? Sadly, most autopsy facilities on the continent are in really poor condition. Substantial changes are required, in policies and procedures as well as in the personal protective equipment provided.”
Blumenthal’s overall ambition is admirable: he wants to encourage people to live well. He writes that “my wish is that this book will help to make you more aware and more mindful.” Indeed, Blumenthal’s stories are as interesting as they are didactic, and he attempts to convey an overall message of the value of life through his work on death. While this message may not interest everyone, Blumenthal’s fascinating life and career in South Africa is a truly incredible window into the life of a forensic pathologist in one of the most volatile climates. Autopsy is interesting, educational, and well worth reading.
Please add Autopsy to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
Please note that a copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.