THE NATURE OF LIFE AND DEATH by Patricia Wiltshire


Every Body Leaves a Trace
Email this review


Colorful, often gruesome stories from one of the pioneers of forensic ecology, a profession that “utilizes and interprets aspects of the natural world to aid detectives in their business of solving crime.”

As evidence to identify a criminal, fingerprints came into use in the late 19th century, DNA in the late 20th. Forensic ecology arrived soon after, but it remains an arcane specialty that involves more sheer drudgery and knowledge, often at the doctorate level, than technology. Raised in a poor Welsh mining village and often too ill to attend school, Wiltshire makes it clear that she was always fiercely ambitious and curious, switching careers when she grew bored. Settling later in life on botany, she went on to specialize in the arcane field of archaeological botany, examining plant remains as well as microscopic spores and pollen from excavations to reveal a surprisingly detailed picture of ancient landscapes, climates, diets, and agricultural practices. A 1994 phone call from a police officer led to the next detour in her career. A dead body had been dumped in a field; there was a suspect but no evidence except his car. Could she help? Carefully examining dirt from the floor mats, she found spores and pollen from a selection of plants that allowed her to point out the exact spot where the body was found. Word got around, and more phone calls arrived—many of which are reflected in the steady stream of anecdotes that fill the book. Wiltshire displays a remarkably strong stomach as she closely examines bodies in various states of decay, and she shows no patience with the belief that a human is anything more than a product of nature that treads the Earth for a time and then returns to it.

An autobiography well supplied with personal opinions along with entertaining if sometimes squirm-inducing triumphs of criminal investigation.

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-54221-6
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2019