Reading John Bateson’s book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, is like reading a very grim tabloid. No gossipy or gory detail is spared, which sometimes felt overwhelming to me. But I like CSI-type shows and this was like binge watching them, except in a book.
In a nutshell, the young Ken Holmes was interested in medicine and was a detailed thinker. But he wasn’t much of a student, so he started working in mortuaries in the 1950s. This led him to the coroner’s office as a death investigator, an assistant coroner, and coroner. He and Bateson met each other through work they’ve done on suicide prevention, and decided Holmes had some stories to tell.
And boy, does he tell a helluva story. There are hundreds of cases from his Marin County coroner’s office files in this book. Literally hundreds. That’s why it gets overwhelming. There’s very little “filler,” or information outside of case after case.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of the cases are interesting, and some of them are jaw-dropping. Bateson includes context about the part of Marin where the death happened, for example was it a wealthy area, or did the house have a fantastic view of San Francisco Bay. Holmes made it a point to spend time with the family of the deceased, so he also learned details about their lives. And he has a steel trap of a memory, recalling copious details from decades ago.
Holmes is also a man of his times, in that he’s not afraid to be politically incorrect. He was born in the 1940s, so his prejudices leak out into the way he approaches cases or describes the players. I didn’t find it incredibly offensive, but you might.
For the most part, however, Holmes comes across as a dedicated civil servant who truly cared about the decedents and their families.
The conclusion of the book is an interview-style discussion about death and grief. Holmes tells Bateson, “I firmly believe that we never have ‘closure’ following a death of someone close to us,” he says. “We may find some peace, we may ‘get through it’ and our lives continue, but true closure is elusive at best and probably nonexistent.”
True as that is, in this case we do get closure because the book ends. I found it fascinating overall, with incredible detail. But don’t read it if you’re going through a rough patch and feeling a little down, since it’s generally pretty depressing.
Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for a digital advance readers copy in exchange for my honest review. Quotes included here may change in the final version of the book.