In amongst my dragons, witches, and spaceships, I can often be tempted by an interesting-sounding non fiction book. A certain morbid curiosity made me take a look at Unnatural Causes when I saw it pop up on NetGalley, and it turned out to be a fascinating read for several reasons.
Book: Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided by NetGalley for fair review. All opinions my own.
This is a really interesting and compelling read, but it is not for the faint-hearted. It deals with death in a graphic (but not gratuitous) way that some readers may find too much – if you aren’t comfortable with discussions of bodies, post-mortems, and disaster relief, then give this book a swerve. However, I found that throughout the entire book, Dr Shepherd’s enormous respect for the people he examined was always apparent, and in a way, I found it quite a comforting read. This is a man dedicated to the puzzle of the human body, and he seems like a very good human being.
The book loosely follows the course of Dr Shepherd’s career as a forensic pathologist, but veers off to expand on certain themes and cases as they become relevant to him. He worked on several high-profile murder cases and disasters, from helping to identify the real causes of death of Harold Shipman’s victims, to the rise of SIDS-related cases, to the relief effort after 9/11. The writing strikes an ideal balance; there’s enough detail to show how forensic pathology was crucial to each of these cases, but it’s never gory or sensationalist. I think that the focus on Shepherd’s own reactions to these cases, and his determination to help, keeps the story humble where it could feel exploitative.
I found the discussion of his own PTSD to be extremely moving – you rarely see vocal discussion of mental health in men of his generation. Dr Shepherd is frank and open about the ways in which his career has affected his life. I think this could open up some important discussions about mental health in medical and police circles. Still, he seems proud of the fact that he has been able to make such a difference to the world – his findings, though he works with those already dead, have helped to protect future victims so many times.
As I say, parts of this book require a strong stomach, and a detached attitude to death, but particularly for those who enjoy the true crime genre, this is a fascinating and touching read. I learned a lot about the science of forensic pathology, for sure, but I also feel like I got a window into the medical and legal background of the last few decades, and I have an enormous amount of respect for Dr Shepherd. I can’t say I “enjoyed” this book, but it was an excellent read.