Historical Fudgery: Autopsies

Over my vacation, I read two series of mysteries, one set about 1870 and one set around 1812. In each series, there’s a brilliant former battle-surgeon with opium issues who knows far more about dead bodies than his contemporaries. Both do autopsies (this procedure became more standardized around 1780, so that’s not an issue for me)that help solve the murders, a lá CSI.*

This was interesting to me because I feel it’s more about reader expectations than accuracy. Starting with Quincy M.E., people have started expecting to hear the autopsy results and have the crime solved. These expectations are a tad unrealistic.

In actuality, autopsies don’t happen as often as most people think they do. Coroners in some states are actually elected officials who don’t need to have any training at all (see Precinct 13 by Lyda Morehouse). I live in Oklahoma currently, where the medical examiner’s office actually lost its accreditation. They’ve stopped investigating probable suicides and obvious-cause murders. They simply don’t have the funding or personnel to keep up with the work.

But readers have begun to expect autopsies.

Is this why the two authors I read included their surgeons? I don’t know. But since these are the only two mystery series I’ve read this year, and both included the plot factor, it provoked some contemplation on my part.

((I once had another writer in a workshop castigate me thoroughly because an autopsy wasn’t being done in my mss following the killing of an assassin by a soldier. It was weird, because they’d obviously seen the assassin shot (in the head), so why would they need to do one? They -knew- cause of death. But the other author at the workshop carried on for some time as if an autopsy was de rigeur in that time period.))

Anyhow, I think it’s interesting. I’m still not sure what my take-away is on this…

FWIW, I’ve purchased one series in hardcover (the Sebastian St. Cyr series by C. S. Harris) and the other in paperback (the Nell Sweeney series by P. B. Ryan) even though I have it in Kindle format already, so I’ve put my money into them. I like them. I simply found the similarity between the two fascinating.

Also I’ve noticed that I can loan the Nell Sweeney books to someone else on Kindle….one time for fourteen days only. If you’d like to try the first one out, let me know.

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*It’s not -exactly- historical fudgery–these characters are possible–but FWIW, I don’t think their evidence would be admissable in courts of those time periods. The law is usually behind the curve in accepting this sort of evidence. (Authors usually get around this by having the killer confess or commit suicide, thereby making evidence less of an issue.)

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