Sachs’s first effort traces the long history of attempts to pinpoint time of death.
Time of death is crucial, of course, for law enforcement. Most famously, the inability of investigators to establish the precise time of death for Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman left reasonable doubt in the murder case of O.J. Simpson. The classic states of rigor (when the corpse becomes stiff), algor (when its temperature cools), and livor (when blood pools, and the body takes on a bluish hue) only describe the first 24 to 48 hours from time of death, and these states are affected by temperature, sunlight, body mass, and health of the victim. With good humor, Sachs examines European and Chinese attempts to establish time of death more precisely, and to establish it when years, rather than hours, have elapsed. She lingers on such blind alleys as the belief in the spontaneous generation of maggots. But the lifecycles of various species of flies did turn out to be important: some lay their eggs on live flesh; others, such as blow flies, only on carrion. Blow flies, too, seem able to smell death, and appear within moments. On the other hand, certain wasps arrive only when bodies have begun to liquefy. Early scientists, in particular the Frenchman Jean Megnin, conducted controlled experiments with flies and corpses, but their findings, while accurate, branded them sensationalists. Similar studies lagged in North America, but began to be taken seriously when anthropologists, using techniques devised to analyze ancient artifacts, showed that a study of fly larvae, weather patterns, and deteriorated bones and clothing could closely approximate a time of death even for a ten-year-old corpse. And the science of forensics moves on with studies of the eye’s vitreous humor, the breakdown of amino acids, and the decaying body’s ability to conduct electricity.
Sachs overdoes her attempts to broaden her subject’s appeal by concocting silly monikers for her scientists, such as “The New Mod Squad.” Otherwise, she brings humor and insight to a neglected but fascinating subject.