Book Review: The Education of a Coroner

When I saw The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson on the new arrivals shelf I grabbed it thinking it would be a little extra research for the second book in my murder mystery series. I had no idea I would find the book so fascinating on its own merits.

Basic Summary (Courtesy of Amazon):

In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides.

Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion. He also learned about different kinds of firearms, all types of drugs—prescription and illegal—and about certain unexpected and potentially fatal phenomena such as autoeroticism.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

My thoughts:

That summary makes the book sound like the boring non fiction slog I thought it might be. And that is so not the case. I don’t know if Ken Holmes is just an entertainer or if Bateson wrote him that way or if their combined efforts gel in exactly the right way. This book was fascinating, a little heart wrenching, and often amusing.

I think the combination of cases, behind the scenes lore, human behavior, and a coroner’s view of the police is what got me. I like to know. Everything.

I’m immediately struck by past arguments I’ve had regarding the police. I always argue that they are good people doing a hard job. But some of the stories told in this book make me feel less secure about that opinion. I also want desperately to go the local archives and read through cases like Bateson did. No time to go down that rabbit hole though. LOL

This is a super well written, very interesting book about the complexities of death and the investigation of death.

The Body in the Pool Chapter 44

The Body in the Pool

Book One of the Dismember Killer Series


Chapter Forty Four

Spence caught twenty winks on the couch in the lunch room. It wasn’t comfortable; marginally better than staying up all night. His cell phone alarm woke him at six. He wanted to be on the front steps haunting clerks by half past. Cup of coffee in hand, he ran the gauntlet. Up and down the halls, sticking his head into every judge’s chambers with an unlocked door.
“I got your message. The judge isn’t in until two today.”
“I got your message. The judge is on vacation until Monday.”
“I got your message. Historically, the judge refuses to sign warrants based on the testimony of a minor.”
“I got your message. The judge will be in at eight. Come back after that.”
“I got your message. Stop calling me in the middle of the night.”

Spence got the message. His emergency was not anyone else’s. Part of him wondered if he said this was to arrest the Dismember Killer, would they suddenly be much more cooperative? Seventeen minutes after seven, he could have walked the dog after all.
At eight on the dot he was back in the chambers. The clerk nodded wearily. “She’s in. I’m warning you now, she probably won’t sign this for you.”
“Minor witness?”
“That’s part of it.”
Spence cursed to himself. There was little to be done. He pulled open the dark walnut stained door. Every judge had law books as far as the eye could see, lining their inner chamber, this one was no different. It always made Spence feel claustrophobic. One misstep and it would all topple over and crush him.
“Good morning, ma’am.”
“Where’s the district attorney on this case?” the judge asked.
“I don’t have one assigned yet ma’am.”
“You’ve requested a warrant for a capital crime without the district attorney?”
“We are in a bit of a hurry, ma’am. The suspect is fleeing the country today.”
“You cannot rush justice, detective. The wheels turn slowly for a reason.”
“And what reason is that?” Spence asked wearily.
“Warrant request denied. I suggest you follow proper procedure next time.”
“Thank you for your time.” Spence ground out his response. There would be a next time with this judge. He needed to salvage as much as he could. He forced himself to walk calmly out of her office and not slam the door.
The clerk gave him a sympathetic smile. “If you come back, I’ll get you in front of her again as fast as possible.”
In the hallway, Spence could stop pretending although he had to keep it quiet, the act of silently screaming at the ceiling helped release some of his pent up tension. He needed a DA. If he waited for assignment through normal channels it would be next week already before they acted. The personal touch it would need to be once again.
He called Melanie. “Morning. I need you to gather all the bits we have against Arlene and meet me at the DA’s office. I can’t get a judge to sign as it is. We need backing.”
“Got it. I can be there in ninety.”
Spence groaned, he knew traffic was the time killer. “Got it.”
He ran up the stairs one level, to W400. He badged the receptionist. “Look I know I’m flirting with the line here, I need an ADA this morning.”
“Do you know how long the line would be out that door if we let people walk all over the process?”
“I have a murderer who is leaving the country in eight hours. Eight.” Spence leaned heavily on the three quarter wall in front of her desk.
“I have a really strong desire to say lack of forethought on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
Eschewing a verbal response Spence crumpled his head onto the wall.
“But I won’t. Let me see who’s around this morning.”
Spence bit his tongue to keep from mentioning the hundred plus attorneys who worked for the county district court system on the prosecutors’ side of the house. He flashed a grimace that almost passed for a smile instead.
Though it took more time than Spence wanted, eventually the receptionist beckoned him down the hall. He followed her around to a small office.
“Joanna Southby, Assistant District Attorney. How can I help you this morning, detective?”
“I’m trying to get a warrant for a suspect who is fleeing the country in a few hours. Judge won’t sign off because I don’t have backing from this office.”
“Is it a capital case?”
“Murder one.”
“What do you have for me?”
“Harold Paulson killed last Thursday. Body mutilated and dumped in the pool of Whispering Evergreen Academy. I have motive and means and opportunity on the wife.”
“I thought Paulson was a Dismember case?”
“That was the initial thought.”
“Why did you change your mind?”
“The husband was having an affair, he planned to leave his wife, told his wife in fact. The victim was drugged and then smothered. Dismember overpowers his victims.”
“I have a witness statement that Arlene Paulson negotiated the purchase of Rohypnol.” Spence extended the file.
“A seventeen year old boy is your witness?” Southby closed the file and shook her head.
“Washington state prosecutes sixteen and seventeen year olds as adults in serious crimes but their word isn’t as good as an adult’s in a witness statement?”
Southby tapped her fingers on her desk for a few beats. “You don’t have enough for murder. I’ll convert this to a request for an arrest warrant on the drug purchase and you’ll have to squeeze her for the rest.”
“Fair enough.” Spence sighed heavily.
Southby typed the amendment into the system. “Who have you seen?”
“Judge Laramie.”
“You went to ‘wheels of justice’ without an ADA? You’re not too bright are you? I’ll walk this down for you.” She hit enter and swiveled away from her desk. “Let’s go, cowboy.”
Spence followed her, texting Melanie. Get a car over to the Paulson house to sit on it. Warrant coming. I don’t want her leaving.

I’ve been thinking Thursday: Mean

We all have our private peccadilloes we don’t share with people no matter how open we may seem. I am no different. For a few months now I’ve been doing DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I won’t go in to all the reasons this came about. This is just the ground work for the story to come.

We’re doing a module on Interpersonal Effectiveness.

Yes, everything has  snazzy name. This module could have been called “how not to be a dick and how to not accept dickish behavior from others.”

When I am talking to someone 75-80% of my brain is fully focused on them and the remainder is stringently editing all the things that come to mind to say. I agreed, as part of Interpersonal Effectiveness, to stop doing that for a week. To listen 100% in the moment to what the other person was saying and then to use the standard 3 seconds social pause to plan my reply.

Twice this week I was told I was mean.


This leads me to consider other ways in which my brain works. Sure I can write 48K words in 6 days. My brain is that fast. All I have to do is put in the hours.

Then it needs to be stringently edited for a year before it’s ready for human consumption. LOL

Why should I treat talking any differently?


The Body in the Pool Chapter 43

The Body in the Pool

Book One of the Dismember Killer Series


Chapter Forty Three

The on-call district attorney verbally agreed to make a deal and agreed to fax over the paperwork forthwith if she didn’t have to drive in from home. That was fine with Spence. He still needed to explain it to the kid.
Spence ran up to the fourth floor to create the array. He needed five similar looking pictures, plus Arlene’s. They had files for this. All arranged by type: age, hair color, sex. Drag and drop. Then hit print. By the time Spence had everything arranged and ran back downstairs, Melanie had the deal hot off the fax machine, complete with the attorney’s signature.
Spence slipped both into a folder and went back into interrogation.
“Listen, Casey, I want you to refuse to look at my photo array.”
“Do me a favor and refuse.”
“Will you still walk Brutus?”
“I refuse to look at your photo array.”
Spence nodded. “Demand a deal.”
“I want a deal.”
Spence smiled. “Nice. Here you go kid.” He pulled the authorization from the DA out of the folder and laid it on the table in front of Casey.
“What’s this?”
“A deal from the district attorney offering you immunity in exchange for your identification and testimony regarding the woman who bribed you to act as her courier. It needs your signature.” Spence laid a pen down on top of the document.
Casey stared at the pen then back up at Spence. “Why are you helping me?”
“It’s about time someone did.”
Casey signed the deal. Spence put it back in the folder. He signaled Melanie through the glass and waited for her to come in to the room. “We need to be able to say I couldn’t have swayed you in any way regarding this identification. Another detective is going to come in, give you the array, and ask you to identify anyone you might recognize.”
It took Melanie no time to enter the room and identify herself as Detective Witlow. She took the prepared array from Spence. “Casey, I am going to place six pictures in front of you. I would like you to look closely at them and let me know if you have seen any of the people before.”
Melanie laid the pictures down.
Casey studied them closely. “Number four.”
“You’ve seen the woman in picture number four before?”
“Yeah. She’s the woman who paid me to be her mailman.”
“Did either I or Detective Thomas suggest to you in anyway which picture to choose?”
“No. That’s her.”
“Thank you, Casey.” Melanie left the room with the pictures.
“You said earlier you didn’t even spend the money. Did you put it in the bank?”
“No it’s still in the envelope between the mattress and box springs on my bed.”
“I need that money Casey. Her fingerprints on that money, corroborates your story.”
“Oh. Ok. They took my keys when they brought me in here. I’m sure they’d give them to you though. Go help yourself.”
Spence nodded. “Good man. Give it a couple of hours for this paperwork to go through and we’ll get you back home.”
“Thanks. It’s real nice of you to help me.”
Spence nodded. “I’ll get your statement transcribed and sent down here for your signature. Knock on the door if you need anything.” He hated to leave the kid there. It was temporary and he had a big fish to land.
After he left the room he arranged for the transcription and told the supervising deputy Casey was a witness to be taken care of, not a perp to be boxed. Spence signed on the deal and handed the paperwork to the clerk. “Get this processed as quick as you can. I don’t really have time to walk a dog tomorrow morning.”
The clerk raised an eyebrow and nodded.
Spence stopped by booking and signed out Casey’s keys. Then he ran back up four flights. At her computer, Melanie had almost completed the warrant for Arlene Paulson’s arrest.
“Who’s on night court?”
“No one.”
“What? Since when?”
“Since the judge on duty got food poisoning on his lunch break and threw up on the bench. I just got off the phone with the bailiff.”
“Crap. How long?”
“I’m planning to call every judge’s clerk who likes us and leave a message. Face it, it’s going to be morning before anyone sees this.”
Spence looked at his watch.
“Don’t remind me how many hours ‘til Arlene leaves the country.”
Spence looked at his watch again. “Crap, I never called Tess.”
Melanie shook her head as she dialed the phone. “Not going to touch that. I have clerks to call.”
“Give me half your list.” Spence reached out his hand while pulling his cell phone to text his wife. Sorry, case breaking.
He had time to call three different clerks and leave messages before Tess texted him back. Sorry, dog fur on your pillow.
At least she wasn’t too mad.
Spence sent Melanie home around two in the morning to get what sleep she could. He drove out to Casey’s to pick up the cash and walked it into evidence processing personally.
On the way back in, he stopped at the desk sergeant to beg a favor. “I promised this witness that I would walk his neighbor’s dog in the morning but I need to be at the court house bright and early. Any chance you could send a patrol car over?”
“To walk a dog?”
“Come on, man. Help me out.”
The sergeant stared at Spence. “You remember that German Chocolate Macaroon cake your wife made for the Christmas social last year.”
“Well so does my wife. It’s her birthday next week. Get your wife to bake me one of them and I’ll get the dog walked.”
Spence laughed. “You got a deal. Here’s address. The old lady’s name is Mrs. Semple and her dog is Brutus.”
“What time?”
“Six-thirty if you can.”
“No problem.”

Book Review: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

I’m not embarrassed to admit, I love me a bit of Austen. In fact, in high school in British Literature, the Austen books were the only ones I actually read all the way through. he-he

Basic Summary (Courtesy of Amazon):

In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly–dazzling Jane Austen authority–looks past the grand houses, the pretty young women, past the demure drawing room dramas and witty commentary on the narrow social worlds of her time that became the hallmark of Austen’s work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, deeply subversive nature of this beloved writer. Kelly illuminates the radical subjects–slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, evolution, among them–considered treasonous at the time, that Austen deftly explored in the six novels that have come to embody an age. The author reveals just how in the novels we find the real Jane Austen: a clever, clear-sighted woman “of information,” fully aware of what was going on in the world and sure about what she thought of it. We see a writer who understood that the novel–until then seen as mindless “trash”–could be a great art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer up to that time, imbued it with its particular greatness.


My thoughts:

I am guilty of allowing the visual image of Colin Firth coming out of the lake in his soaking wet shirt color my reading of Austen. I read the books long before that particular mini series of course but subsequent readings, adult readings, always hark back to Colin Firth in his soaking wet shirt. Let’s take a momentary pause shall we?



Moving on. Helena Kelly’s arguments were vastly thought provoking and made me immediately want to reread all Jane Austen’s books. God knows when I’ll have the time, so for now I’m fighting the urge. But I think Austen extra brilliant now. She very effectively used the pastiche of romance to critique every major institution of her lifetime. And she did it without getting her head removed from her body of treason. That is skill. The fact that we’re still reading her 200 years later is all the more impressive.


The Body in the Pool Chapter 42

The Body in the Pool

Book One of the Dismember Killer Series


Chapter Forty Two

Spence stood in observation with Melanie. Casey Jackson sat at the wooden table on the other side of the glass, his head in his hands, his elbows on the table. His night was about to get much worse.
“We’re down to 15 hours before she flies,” said Melanie.
“No pressure.” Spence laughed.
“Um, no, actually the opposite. Lots of pressure. Get in there and break him.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
Spence grabbed the folder he’d prepared, a yellow lined notepad, and a pencil with wobbly lead then headed on in to interrogation. He sighed loudly. He kicked the chair away from the table and plopped in it. He gave Casey an exhausted look, before he picked up the folder and pretended to read from the blank pages inside. He didn’t speak for several minutes, letting the tension build as he “read” up on Casey. Finally, he closed the folder and slapped it down on the table.
“You’ve got yourself in quite a pickle.” He didn’t leave Casey an opportunity to speak. “Alright. Your name is Casey Jackson, yes?”
With a slow nod, Casey agreed.
Spence started to write down Casey Jackson on his yellow notepad, pressing hard enough to break the wobbly tip. “Ugh. Seriously. I can not catch a break today. First I have to chase you. I slip and fall on that damn wet floor. Then I got to walk around looking like I pissed myself. Get called back in here at midnight to interview you. And now my pencil breaks.” He broke the pencil in half, slapped the pieces down on the notepad and sighed.
“Can we make this easy, kid? It’s been a long ass day. Tell me why you ran.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know why you ran from the cops.” Spence kept his tone flat.
“You don’t know why you ran but you ran so far and so fast you ran out of gas halfway to the summit.”
Spence took a beat in his act. The kid wasn’t defiant. He wasn’t copping attitude. He looked resigned.
“What made you think we were even looking for you?”
Casey shrugged.
“Do you know what department I work for?”
Casey shook his head.
“Homicide. Did you kill anyone?”
“I don’t know.”
This took Spence by surprise. “You don’t know if you killed anyone?”
“I might be a what do you call it, accessory.”
“You might be. How do you figure that?”
Casey shook his head.
Time to switch gears. “Everyone I talked to about you, told me what a good kid you are. Your boss, your next door neighbor.”
“You went to my house?”
“We did.”
“Then you know half the story already.”
“Can you tell me the other half?” Spence asked kindly.
“If I talk to you, can I go home?”
“I suppose that depends on what you tell me. If you don’t talk to me, you won’t be going home.”
“I kind of really need to go home. I walk Mrs. Semple’s dog for her every morning. He’s a pit bull. He has a lot of energy. That’s how she fell last year and why I started walking him for her. I don’t want her to get hurt if I’m not there to walk Brutus in the morning.”
Spence didn’t know what to say. He’d never grilled a suspect like this before. The kid wasn’t worried about getting arrested or charges or jail time. He was worried about not walking the dog. “I’ll make you a deal. You tell me what’s going on, why you ran from us? And I’ll walk Brutus in the morning.”
“You promise?”
“I do.”
Casey stared at him. “Are you the kind of man who tells lies?”
He startled Spence. “I am. I wish I wasn’t. I promise I am not lying about walking Brutus though. You tell me what time and I will be there.”
“I usually walk him around 6:30, you know before school.”
“I can do that. I will do that.”
Casey stared at Spence for a long minute. “A few weeks ago this woman comes up to me in the parking lot of the Rusty Porpoise. I was on my break. Smoking a cigarette. I know it’s a bad habit. Mrs. Semple gives me hard time about it.”
Spence nodded.
“She asks what I do at the restaurant. I tell her I wash dishes. She wants to know how much I make an hour washing dishes. Eleven dollars.”
“She opens her purse, this big leather thing, and pulls out five hundred dollars. She asks if I want to make double that. At first I’m thinking hell no. It’s got to be illegal if she’s offering cash to strangers in a parking lot.”
Spence had to agree with the kid.
“Anyway, I guess she saw my suspicion because she pulls out five hundred more. I’ll double it, she says. Two grand. That’s a lot of money. I ask her what I have to do for it. Play mailman. Mailman. I didn’t know what to think about that. But she explained it. Someone would bring me a package at work at the back door on a specific night. I would give them fifty bucks. Then I would hold the package until she picked it up the next night. She’d give me the other grand then.”
“It sounded too good to be that simple. Also too good to turn down, you know. I agreed and she asks me about the days I work. Says the delivery will be on the fifth, hands me the grand cash and walks away.”
“That was it. On the fifth a kid knocked on the back door. I gave him fifty, he gave me an envelope. The next night the woman came back. I gave her the envelope and she gave me ten more hundred dollar bills.”
“When you showed up today I thought maybe she’s done something bad with whatever was in the envelope and I was in trouble for it, too. I didn’t even spend the money.”
Spence stared at the kid for a minute. “Could you pick the woman out of a photo array?”
“I guess so. I saw her in pretty good light when she picked up the envelope.”
“Give me a minute,” Spence said.
“I can’t really go anywhere.”
Spence chuckled and bolted from the room.
Melanie met him in the hall. “I know, I know. Get a photo array.”
“No. I’ll get the photos. You get the district attorney on call on the line and them that we have a witness that can tie Arlene Paulson to the purchase of Rohypnol. Tell her they won’t cooperate without full immunity. Make sure you stress Arlene is leaving the country in less than fourteen hours.”
Melanie stopped walking. “What are you doing, Spence?”
“He’s gonna do time and he’s already paid a harsh price.”
“The dead mommy?”
“The dead mommy, the missing dad. He’s working full time, going to school, and still making time to walk his neighbor’s dog. And he isn’t smart enough to work this for himself. We’re gonna do it for him.”
“Yeah. I’m in,” said Melanie as she grabbed the nearest desk phone.

I’ve been thinking Thursday: Good Parenting?

Have you ever noticed right about the time you’re ready to send your child off to a military style boarding school they suddenly pull some amazing miracles out of their ass?

Seriously, in the midst of a heinous day of the kiddo acting like an extra from a zombie apocalypse movie (just replace “brains” with “irritate mum”), he suddenly pulls off a stunner of a twist.

He’s at his karate belt test. He’s sparing with a girl who’s his own level, they test based on belt type, so she should know everything he does. They’re the pair sparring closest to the mom zone. I can hear him coaching her. “You have to apply enough pressure to keep my elbow straight.” “They’re looking for you to do three taps to my arm before you punch my ribs.”

Warms my heart.

Then it goes on.

They’re doing kata. Now at their level, a black belt demonstrates the kata so they can follow along. But if they want a higher score (ie they want in to the coveted weapons class), they have to perform without a black belt leading. One boy volunteers to go alone. The sensei asks if anyone else wants to go with him or if he’ll have to be all by himself? The kiddo jumps up and says he’ll do it so the kid doesn’t have to be alone.

Oh, just wait….

When they finished kata they are supposed to stand at attention until everyone else finishes and they are dismissed. No problem this first go. But then a large group of kids get up to do kata without a black belt and mine goes again. He finishes and stands at attention. Everyone else finishes except one girl. She is clearly lost. Kiddo starts kata from the very next move she needs and she follows him to the end.

After the test is over, the kiddo tells me “I’m probably going to get marked down for not maintaining attention but it was worth it to help her.”

Well, damn.  Perhaps humanity is not lost.

No military school for him this week I guess.