Elaine Viets is the author of the dark Francesca Vierling Newspaper Mysteries; the traditional, humorous Dead-End Job Mysteries; the cozy Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper mysteries; and the dark Angela Richman, Death Investigator Series. Today Elaine joins us to talk about the course she took as research for her latest series. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
Listening to the Dead: Death Investigators
In my new series, Death Investigator Angela Richman believes the dead talk. They are trying to tell us how they died, if we can get past our own emotions to study their bodies. Hatred, fear, loathing, shock, disgust are some of the emotions that cloud our judgement. Facts shine through those murky, swirling depths. Keeping sight of the facts will help solve the crime and bring the killer to justice.
What are death investigators?
They are the “paralegals” of the crime world. DIs are not doctors, but they are trained, and they work for the medical examiner. At the crime scene, the DI photographs the body, documents all the wounds, starting at the head and working toward the feet.
The DI protects the victim's hands with paper bags to preserve evidence that might be on them, and notes anything that may be lost when the body is transported: Stray hairs and fibers on the victim's chest will be photographed, then removed with tweezers and bagged.
This new, darker mystery series is set in mythical Chouteau County, a "ten-square-mile pocket of white privilege" near St. Louis, Missouri. Angela works for the Chouteau County medical examiner. She investigates all unexpected and unexplained deaths: accidents, murders, suicides. The DI is responsible for the dead person. The police handle the scene – everything but the body.
To make sure Angela had the most accurate forensics, I took the Medicolegal Death Investigators Training Course, given by St. Louis University's School of Medicine. Death investigators started in my hometown of St. Louis in 1978 because there was a shortage of forensic pathologists.
The two-credit college course was five days, from eight in the morning to five at night. Students came from as far away as Australia. I sat between an Illinois police chief and a working DI from Austin, Texas.
Here's one day's agenda for the death investigator course:
In the morning, we learned about gunshot wound fatalities, explosion-related deaths, motor vehicle fatalities, and drowning. At lunch we watched a video about teen drunken driving that made me want to trade my car for an armored personnel carrier.
Next we studied alcohol-related deaths, suicide, blunt-trauma fatalities, and more. I was grateful that the airplane crash investigations weren't on the same day I flew home to Florida. Seeing photos of a field of tiny flags marking bits of passengers did not make me eager to board the plane.
For more than eight hours, we studied photos and videos from crime scenes and autopsies. I'm sure if I saw – and smelled – real autopsies, I'd be pea green and upchucking. The photos gave me enough distance that I could tolerate the gruesome illustrations.
One other thing I learned: Avoid a "Born to Lose" tattoo. It's prophetic. I can't tell you how many times I saw that tattoo in autopsy photos. The most dramatic was a man with "Born to Lose" in black Gothic letters on his forehead.
Right under the bullet hole.
A Star is Dead
An Angela Richman, Death Investigator Mystery, Book 3
"Ageless" Hollywood diva Jessica Gray is finishing the last leg of her one-woman show in St. Louis, Missouri, and the nearby town of Chouteau Forest is dazzled. During the show, she humiliates three homeless women onstage, fires her entourage - not for the first time - and makes a bitter enemy of the town's powerful patriarch.
After she collapses at an after-show party and is rushed to the hospital, she ignores the advice of her doctors and discharges herself in order to return to LA. On the way to the airport, she suffers a deadly coughing fit. It was poison. When Angela Richman's friend, Mario, is arrested for the murder and faces the death penalty, she is compelled to investigate.
With so many grudges held against the actress and Mario's life on the line, the stakes are higher than ever.