WORKING STIFF by Judy Melinek


Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner
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A lively chronicle of a death investigator’s days, from forensic pathologist Melinek and her husband, Mitchell.

Forensic pathologists investigate sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. In addition to conducting the autopsies, they also visit the scene of death, counsel the grieving, collaborate with detectives and testify in court. For Melinek, in whose voice this story is told, it is a match made in heaven: “Not a scratch on his limbs and torso—but his head looked like an egg you smash on the counter. We even call it an ‘eggshell skull fracture.’ Isn’t that cool?” she asks her husband, who responds simply, “No….No, it isn’t.” Despite the subject, Melinek’s enthusiasm for her calling is always apparent, and her writing is un–self-consciously bouncy, absorbed and mordant (though not caustic). Most of the action takes place at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, where she trained with her mentor, the wonderfully drawn Dr. Charles Hirsch, who ended their Friday afternoon meetings with, “Any old business, new business, monkey business? No? Why then, I think I’ll go home and have a double.” The authors take us along on an utterly engrossing guided tour of an autopsy—e.g., livers are the slipperiest organs, and the abdominal cavity can sprout accessory spleens, “like bright red mushrooms.” There is a body pulverized by an eggroll-making machine; a green body with a purple face; bodies covered with swastikas; and suicide jumpers who seemingly hit every ledge and protrusion on the way down. There are countless deaths that call forth sorrow, as well as a number of suicides, which are an aching reminder of Melinek’s father’s suicide, which she faces unsparingly. The authors display a fine hand at describing a host of medical mysteries, as well as the harrowing aftermath of 9/11.

A transfixing account of death, from the mundane to the oddly hair-raising.

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4767-2725-7
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2014


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