Meme me up, Scotty! Autopsy overload!

 Plz doan mak me read no moar autopsy scenez

After catching the bug from Rhian over at It’s a Crime! (or a Mystery…), here’s the first in an occasional series entitled Meme me up, Scotty! The idea is to create a meme that captures, in the purest possible form, a reading moment or reaction on my part.

As you might guess from this lovingly-crafted meme, I’m currently somewhat frustrated by the volume of autopsy scenes I’m made to sit through as a crime reader. I’ve just read three novels in a row that feature long and lavishly-detailed autopsies, and am now a reluctant expert in the grisly protocols involved. However, I have yet to feel that these, or any of the other autopsy scenes I’ve read, contribute significantly to the crime narrative. This may just be a question of taste – there’s certainly an element of subjective judgement involved – but I still can’t help wondering why authors feel they are necessary.

Some theories (from the serious to the silly)

  • They’re just part of the formula for police procedurals, so in they go
  • They show I’ve done my research and am an expert on the detail of policework
  • They mean you can’t mistake my novel for a cosy: it’s gritty and real
  • They confront readers with the reality of violence/crime
  • They confront readers with their own mortality (an existential statement, if you will)
  • The grumpy-yet-erudite pathologist is a winning character 
  • I’ve been told by my publisher that autopsy scenes sell really well
  • We crime authors have a secret autopsy contest: the most gruesome example wins a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.  

I’d be very interested to hear some reader and author views on this topic.  Do autopsies enhance crime narratives and if so how? Or could we do without them?

I created my meme at the wonderful Cheezburger.com and availed myself of the magnificent lolcat translator. I feel an addiction coming on.

Update: See also the excellent post on the rise of the serial killer (with graph!) over at the Past Offences blog (thanks for the kind mention, Rich.)

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32 thoughts on “Meme me up, Scotty! Autopsy overload!

  1. I think the theory “They show I’ve done my research and am an expert on the detail of policework” is probably often true. Some fiction writers lard their work with info-dump, it pads out a thin story and seems designed to elevate the writer to expert status. Historical fiction and Science fiction authors are equally guilty of this method. It bores the pants off me.

    • Thanks, Norma. I guess the inclusion of a detailed description of autopsy procedure was once an innovation (I’d be interested to know when the autopsy scene first started appearing). But of course now these descriptions are fairly generic and don’t really add to a dedicated crime reader’s sum of knowledge. I tend to skim over them, while keeping an eagle eye out for clues (but don’t usually find that anything significant comes out of the autopsy in plot terms).

  2. I would go for bullet point 2 and 7. I agree with Norma that there is an air of “I’ve researched this so I’m including it”. But I also think that in some types of thrillers autopsy scenes have become obligatory and that could well be down to commercial pressures. That said, gore comes in all forms and you don’t need an autopsy scene for gratuitous and grisly body dissection!

  3. Thanks, Sarah. I think market forces could well be a factor, although I’m wondering if there really *is* a market demand for this kind of scene or whether it’s just a *perceived* demand on the part of the publisher, and readers don’t actually want them as much as they think.

    I’m reading a very good crime novel at the moment, Peter May’s The Blackhouse, which is set on the Isle of Lewis, and contains some wonderfully evocative descriptions of the landscape, and of local culture and life. All goes swimmingly until an autopsy scene pops up out of the blue – which really doesn’t seem to belong in narrative terms – and creates an odd sense of dislocation (at least for this reader). It certainly wouldn’t put me off recommending the novel to other readers, but is an odd interlude that the novel could easily have done without.

  4. Good questions! The autopsy scene cliche is the queasy detective having to watch while clever pathologist reveals the crucial clue if detective passes some unspoken initiative test (presumably, not throwing up all over the pathologist).
    I can’t really comment on the theories because there is probably an element of truth in all of them, some of the time. I do think that they are often there just because the author seems to think they are a necessary part of a crime novel.
    I can’t recall a novel where the autopsy is really crucial to the plot – years ago when I read P Cornwell or K Reichs I remember endless scenes about insects hatching out etc (this was done more recently by Simon Beckett in Whispers of the Dead but it was not too bad in that). I am not keen on them just because they are cliches, they all merge into the same. If they get too graphic I skim over them (eg in Red April) but in many books they just seem to be part of the obligatory scenery. In The Blackhouse, the plot depends on the autopsy in the sense that the pathologist tells the detective a crucial piece of info which the detective does not pass on to anyone, so not sure if that counts – but I think the detective’s knowledge of the murderer also played a part in his adding 2 and 2 – ie the evidence may not have made sense to anyone who did not know the murderer quite well.

    One reason I quite like legal dramas for a change now and again is that they rarely contain autopsy scenes!

  5. Oops, I wrote my comment without reading your reply above about The Blackhouse! Looking forward to seeing what you make of this aspect of the plot (and hope I haven’t provided a spoiler…..don’t think so….)

    • Oh, I have to laugh, Maxine. There I am saying that autopsies don’t add significantly to the plot, and you cite the very novel I’m reading as an example of where that is in fact the case! Excellent. I won’t go back and take another look for now, but look forward to finding out or being reminded what the clue is further down the line 🙂

      Thanks for your comments – and for reminding me of the ‘queasy detective’ / initiation trope. And yes, there is probably an element of a mixture of motives for these scenes, as you say. Would love to hear an author or publisher point of view as well …

  6. Since I am guilty of including a post mortem scene in my book, I must pitch into this intriguing discussion! I certainly didn’t do it for the gorefest – I actually hate gratuitous blood and guts – and it’s true that the plot info it contained could easily have been delivered, if rather more prosaically, via a PM report. So why did I include it? I guess because I wanted to show the reaction of my rookie DC to her first encounter with the reality of investigating a suspicious death (close to one of your suggested reasons, Mrs P). She’s green enough to be shocked by the casual nature in which a pathologist deals with bodies, but is already growing a thick skin. And her natural inquisitiveness soon overcomes her squeamishness. So for me, it was about character. I look forward to The Black House – sounds great.

    • Thanks for taking the time to give us your perspective as an author, Anya. It’s lovely to have you on the blog.

      Character development didn’t feature on my list, and I can see that that’s one that could be added on – it makes sense in the context you describe, where you’re foregrounding the initial reactions of the rookie to the post-mortem process. I guess you could also play with that scenario in terms of gender expectations (male colleagues might expect a young policewoman to go weak at the knees at the sight of blood etc.).

      Do you think that you’d include an autopsy scene in subsequent novels? Would you feel under pressure as an author to deliver the expected ‘formula’, or would you only include one if you felt you really needed to, for a reason such as the one you’ve outlined above?

      • Thanks for having me, Mrs P! You rightly pick up on it presenting an opportunity for male fellow cops to test out a young woman: my gal’s Sarge has a little pop at her when she asks to attend the PM, saying something like “Don’t chuck up on the professor’s shoes…” NB I was surprised to learn from my cop friends that it’s more unusual for an investigating officer to attend a PM these days: apparently it’s more likely to be the preserve of the CSI/SOCO (terminology varies force to force!). I therefore had to make her attendance about her determination to go the extra mile, to glean stuff from the pathologist that she might otherwise not have learnt from a report. So I suspect I won’t be having a detective attending a PM in my next book, which anyway has much less ‘police procedural’ in it. Above all, I quite agree with your sentiments, and those outlined here by Rhian, that if it isn’t crucial to the plot or character: lose it!

      • Thanks for taking the time to comment again, Anya – it’s extremely interesting to hear on this issue from an author’s point of view.

  7. Great suggestions, especially the grumpy pathologist. At the other end of the autopsy scale, this discussion of a pathologist’s report from Smallbone Deceased (1950)…

    ‘Effect of picture-wire on the human neck,’ said Dr. Bland. ‘Two hundred magnifications.’
    ‘Extraordinary,’ said Hazelrigg with distaste. ‘I suppose that dark line at the bottom is the–just so. You needn’t explain.’

    It would be interesting to know when the current trend began.

    • Thanks for this *wonderful* extract, Rich – how beautifully discreet things were back then!

      I’d be very keen to figure out when and where the autopsy scene took root as well. In a police procedural from the US, perhaps? I’ll definitely keep an eye out now when reading earlier crime novels.

      If anyone has any ideas about which decade is most likely, please pitch in.

      • Things certainly were discreet back then. Eg Lord of the Rings, Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog was major, exciting stuff. In the book, blink and you’d miss it – mentioned in a brief paragraph.

  8. I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong but I think the autopsy scene came to prominence as a result of Patricia Cornwell’s Post Mortem (debut) novel back in 1990. With her protagonist Kay Scarpetta, a Medical Examiner and Forensic Pathologist, her novels centred on someone who dealt in dead bodies and cause of death on a daily basis. Before Post Mortem, I don’t think anyone had opened the door to this world. There is some irony in the title too – which makes a bugbear of mine when reading. In the US there are autopsies in morgues; but in the UK we have post mortems in mortuaries. I hate to see British authors make it into print with the wrong terminology. Following the success of Cornwell, Kathy Reichs then appeared on the scene in 1997 with a forensic anthropologist as her protagonist, Temperance Brennan, in her debut novel Déjà Dead. Luckily and refreshingly, for the same general arena, the difference was made very clear in her novels. Brennan was a specialist lady of bones whereas Scarpetta’s world covered the whole body (and a @#!*% of a lot more in subsequent novels).

    Prior to these novelists, I think it’s fair to say that thrillers had been the big hitters and Thomas Harris, in the few years before, had pioneered with the serial killer. Again, like the dead body on the slab, no one had really encountered a character like Hannibal Lecter. I mention this as the two themes then became entwined to a degree: how better to move that serial killer plot along than have clues from a repeated MO brought to light and confirmed in the autopsy. How better indeed to have resolution and eventual capture than through evidence obtained from forensics where the killer has actually made a mistake (usually through a rise in frenzy).

    I think the US led the way here. With such US novels available in the UK and selling well, UK authors needed to up their game for sales. I have no doubt that this is why we saw Mo Hayder’s controversial and bestselling debut novel in 2000, Birdman. Prior to this novel, British crime novels, although not ‘cosies’ as such, were a tad cosy. Hayder brought the US style of thriller to the UK with a UK setting. Alongside this, there were major scientific developments in the real world and no writer of the police procedural could avoid them when doing research and writing their novels. DNA evidence became the hook on which to hang (obtain a conviction on) the perpetrator.

    So, taking your list and considering today’s world, Mrs P:

    They’re just part of the formula for police procedurals, so in they go
    They are part of the real life aspect, so yes, if relevant to the plot they have a part to play. But is the detail always required? Extent of detail should match the overall tone of the novel.

    They show I’ve done my research and am an expert on the detail of police work
    Please save us all from this one; any decent editor would edit out the superfluous. Not relating to a post mortem, but I once read a debut where certain parts of the story read like a patient’s medical records. If I wanted to read this I’d get a job which allowed it in the NHS or with a private insurer. Luckily, I have not come across this disabling tendency to a material degree.

    They mean you can’t mistake my novel for a cosy: it’s gritty and real
    More to be found with those who describe the violence when it happens, I find. The dead body and PM lovers who love to write about this just have an intense interest in the area. I won’t knock them for that, as I do too. I’d just like it relevant to the story and plot.

    They confront readers with the reality of violence/crime
    If a PM, it’s a dead body. The reality of the crime/violence is over or elsewhere. The reality comes from capturing the dreadful issue of the violence when it takes place or its impact afterwards. Taking a TV series as an example here: why was The Killing 1 so refreshingly groundbreaking? Because it focused on the impact of the crime and violence. Because it focused on the aftermath, the loss, the guilt, and how people were forced to deal with it. Noting a fractured skull in a PM is clinically removed and distant from the emotion of the case. Writers beware: a chapter on the PM might not draw a reader in further; readers need to empathise with the emotions involved.

    They confront readers with their own mortality (an existential statement, if you will)
    Does anyone experience this? I don’t.

    The grumpy-yet-erudite pathologist is a winning character
    This is an interesting one as the pathologist can be key within the story. If the Path is the protagonist, it’s a done deal: they have to be a winning character otherwise no one will read on. If part of a troupe of characters, the Path will need to be noticed. But the Path might also be key to the character development of another character in the novel, as Anya has said. Here I cite John Lawton’s Path, Kolankiewicz, as an example. He’s an extremely engaging and interesting character is his own right, partly because he is a Polish immigrant to the UK, partly because he’s finding his way and is outspoken in his thoughts. But he’s also more than the Path to protagonist Freddie Troy’s investigations in the (relevant) novels as they have a relationship. Kolankiewicz is key to Freddie’s story arc across the series and his character development. Write it well and it works (making it relevant). Make the Path a cartoon character in passing and no one wins.

    I’ve been told by my publisher that autopsy scenes sell really well
    Lower down your list, Mrs P, and hence nearer your silly end, but I wonder. I really do.

    We crime authors have a secret autopsy contest: the most gruesome example wins a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
    Not so silly perhaps, but I have seen this in another context if the authors are to be believed. Not the PM, but the violence itself, as if a contest on the violence gore factor. And not for the wine you mention, but for the kudos. It irks me every time, especially when I see one of the authors interviewed elsewhere talking about responsibility when depicting violence in novels. Some simply don’t realise the hypocrisy of flipping that pancake; as if readers won’t notice eventually. But some readers do.

    To conclude, I have not read anything of late that I thought had a penchant for a superfluous PM scene. But then, Mrs P, we read in different circles most of the time, don’t we? (Even if sharing the same love.) And talking of sharing the same love, may I apologise for introducing you to I Can Has Cheezburger and the addiction that follows? Gives us more in common though, eh? LOL. (In cat/LOL speak.)

    • Rhian, thank you so much for this incredibly full and illuminating response.

      So to sum up your ‘rise of the autopsy’ milestones:

      1990: Cornwell / Scarpetta forensic pathologist series as possible starting point for sustained focus on autopsy
      1997: Reichs / Brennan forensic anthropologist series follows
      BUT also likely cross-fertilisation from serial-killer thrillers (Harris’ Silence of the Lambs 1988) whose style is taken up in the UK by writers such as Mo Hayder (Birdman 2000)
      COMBINED WITH major advances in forensic science / DNA technology, which police procedural writers inevitably wish to reflect in their narratives [possibilities of DNA profiling discovered in 1984 by British academic!].

      This makes a lot of sense and would explain how we now come to find the autopsy scene as standard in a myriad of British (and European?) crime novels (mainly police procedurals or crime novels that contain elements of that genre).

      What interests me too is the point you make about the British crime novels having been ‘a tad cosy’ when compared to their tougher, more violent US cousins. While, as you say, some British writers do now draw explicitly on the ‘American’ style (Hayder), others have retained their more restrained ‘British’ (or European?) tone, but also add in the more explicit ‘forensic / autopsy’ element. This might be what led to my sense of disjunction when reading The Blackhouse – the clash between the two different styles of crime writing. (As an aside, I think that some writers embrace this fusion of styles and see it as being very marketable. Camilla Lackberg is the most obvious and successful example I can think of: I find her novels a very odd fusion of the cosy and the grisly – one minute you’re reading about Erica Falck’s difficulties returning to work after having a baby, the next you’re being treated to an incredibly graphic description of a fly-blown corpse. A new subgenre: the ‘gory cosy’? But I digress…).

      Thanks too, Rhian, for your responses to my list (originals now in bold). Authors and publishers will find much to reflect on here!

      I would agree with you that relevance is a key issue. I remember reading both the early Cornwell and Reichs novels, and the forensic detail wasn’t an issue for me, because it was obviously so central to the professions of the investigators and the plot (the focus on forensics was also groundbreaking at this point and provided a fascinating insight into the work that pathologists do). It’s when the autopsy scene is lobbed into the narrative in a tick-it-off-the-list way that my readerly hackles rise. Or when it is used merely as an excuse to restate in graphic detail the sadistic violence visited on a female victim.

      I would also agree that the question of publisher influence is one that should be considered seriously, as they obviously play an important role in shaping the market. The point was further down my list, but it’s one of the ones I’m most interested in exploring.

      There’s lots more I could say, but I’ll stop there for now. Thanks again, Rhian – you’ve really made me think – and ‘plz doan apologiz’ for the meme addiction. I think they are genius, and a great way of summing up an issue or question for discussion 🙂

  9. Couple of brief comments:

    -blown away by Rhian’s response! Broadly I agree with the history lesson but I would give a bit more credit (or debit!) to Thomas Harris (whom you mention) whose Red Dragon contained Hannibal Lector as a relatively minor character but which was primarily about Will Farrell’s (surname?) investigation into a murder case which concerns an obsession with autopsies (as it’s an American book). I think this novel is usually said to be an “inspiration” for Cornwell’s Post Mortem, which I’d agree started a mass fashion for this kind of book (and which I thought good). In Red Dragon, Will had previously solved a case in which Lector was identified as the criminal and hence Lector spends the book in prison, playing mind-games with Will. Will is written out in future books (Silence of the Lambs etc) which is a pity as he is one of the most obsessed detectives (ex-FBI agent) I’ve ever encountered, & I’ve encountered a few. Red Dragon is quite a bit about the FBI profiling technology, etc, which was also picked up by Cornwell in Post Mortem and future novels. Thomas Harris never wrote a book as good as Red Dragon.

    – Sorry that was not so brief! Second comment is that having read Anya Lipska’s book I can confirm that the post-mortem (as in Britain) scene is completely acceptable – at least to me 😉

    • I know! Amazing response from Rhian!

      Thanks for the extra information about Red Dragon, Maxine, and its influence on Cornwell. I have to confess that I’ve never read any of Harris’ books (don’t think my constitution is strong enough), but they are obviously very important in terms of their influence on other writers.

      • I did not like Silence of the Lambs and found Hannibal revolting. Have not read any more. But Red Dragon I did like, as it was so original.

      • Thanks for the recommendation. If I can pluck up the courage, I’ll give it a go. In terms of its influence, it sounds like one I really should read.

  10. I may be in the minority here, but IF the writer has done his/her research, I do like autopsy scenes. Not for the blood and gore (and no more Scarpetta silliness for me), but for autopsies that add to the plot. Autopsies that offer genuine information needed by the detective (and teach me more about the progress they make within this field). I also like the more sober documentaries about this area – sorry, but that´s just the way I am. If you want to teach me anything about science, put it in a crime story, and I´ll probably enjoy growing wiser 🙂

    • Thanks very much for putting the other side of the argument, Dorte. I think I was unlucky in hitting a run of three novels with autopsy scenes that for the most part were fairly repetitive, lingered on the grisly, and failed to add significantly to the plot (The Blackhouse, which I’ve now finished, was the exception in terms of providing a clue, but I still think the crucial information could have been just as effectively relayed in a PM report!).

  11. I do not like gristly, gory scenes in my reading and that includes autopsies. I stopped reading Cornwall’s and Reich’s books years ago. And if I’m reading and get to an autopsy scene, even if I’m riveted to the story, I’ll skip over descriptive parts and just read the sections in quotes, i.e., the dialogue between detective and coroner or between detectives. I want to know what they’re saying and thinking, but do not want to read gratuitous stuff. This applies in books I like a lot. I enjoyed Michael Connelly’s The Drop and there is an autopsy scene and there’s a dynamic between Bosch and a younger detective and I just read Bosch’s thoughts and the dialogue.
    I agree on disliking Hannibal Lechter. I won’t read the book or anything like it. Ugh.
    And I like legal thrillers and Donna Leon’s books and others which play up the puzzle and character development and also locations, but don’t dwell on the gory. And I don’t know the part of publishers in this scenario. I think many want violence, body counts mounting and forensic descriptions. But what do I know? I’m a reader who can choose what I want to read — and skip.

    • Thanks, for your comment, Kathy – the reading strategy you describe is certainly one I’ve used myself on occasion. And hooray for the option to be selective or to skip!

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  15. Rather late to leave a comment, but has anyone here read the Peter Diamond novels of Peter Lovesey. They do have an amusing take on the inevitable autopsy scene, with the hard-bitten police inspector not wanting anything to do with bodies being cut open. He either sends his subordinates or else spends the entire time looking at the floor and trying not to gag.

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