Review: The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson

Title: The Education of a Coroner
Author: John Bateson
Pages: 368
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: Free ARC from Scribner

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ 

Note: As stated under the Source (above), I received this book for free from Scribner via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.

Goodreads Summary: “In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides.

Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion. He also learned about different kinds of firearms, all types of drugs—prescription and illegal—and about certain unexpected and potentially fatal phenomena such as autoeroticism.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coronerprovides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

Review: Admittedly, I’m in the midst of playing catch up on books I read, mostly over the summer, that I didn’t manage to review straightaway (those rascally triplets on summer break!). It’s been long enough that I can’t recall any specific details, but I can still easily recall how I felt about it and why I was interested to begin with. Just keep in mind that my thoughts have been blurred by time. And as is always the case, different strokes for different folks.

With the exception of craft/art/children’s books, I don’t review a lot of nonfiction, but this particular book appealed because I love to watch legal/law enforcement/medical drama’s and documentaries. But also, when I was in my early teen’s, I wanted to be a pathologist and/or medical examiner. What can I say? When you want to be a doctor, but you don’t want to cut into living people and you love a good mystery….

So, I went in excited. And I’ll admit, I learned a thing or two while reading the book. But. The author’s perspective didn’t always mesh with mine, occasionally uncomfortably so. However, there is a lot of information about suicide, suicide investigations, and the way in which suicide ripples through a family and community. Given that he worked in the coroner’s office responsible for the area covered by the Golden Gate Bridge, Bateson has more experience with this particular subject than most in his line of work. And because of his time in the coroner’s office, he went on to do a lot of good work in suicide prevention.

One of the things that I will always remember about this book is how much I learned about the politics surrounding the coroner’s office. You’d think that something like an autopsy, or a death investigation, would require a medical degree, but shockingly, that is not so. If you’re interested in learning about the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner and just some of the ridiculous politics that surround it, this is an eye-opening read.

For me, this book was pretty meh. It’s the first of this kind that I’ve read, and it left me wanting. Fortunately, there are plenty more fish in this particular sea.

19 Replies to “Review: The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson”

    • Ha! Honestly, the book wasn’t as creepy as you’d expect because he focused primarily in investigation outside of the autopsy room. It was interesting, but not what I had in mind. I would have preferred something you would likely have found truly creepy. 😉

  1. Interesting review. At the end of the day I’m not sure how you or I feel about this whole subject. You have to be somewhat interested in it if you like mysteries, but there is so much that extends beyond the fictional world, such as the ripple effects of a suicide. And no, I didn’t know the difference between an M.E. and a coroner.

    • Though it wasn’t what I had in mind (I was thinking more along the lines of the show “Dr. G: Medical Examiner”), it was interesting. Honestly, I didn’t care for the author’s “voice” all that much, and that affected my enjoyment of the book. However, the politics surrounding death investigations and the positions responsible for them was equal parts infuriating and intriguing. It never occurred to me that a position like coroner would be an elected position that required no experience whatsoever. 😤

  2. Myndi, I haven’t read this one but it sounds interesting. I’m trying to incorporate more nonfiction into my reading this year, recently finished BAD BLOOD and I’m recommending it to everyone, I think you might enjoy it

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Carol!

      I’m trying to do the same. I have several other (old!) galleys along this same line that I’m hoping will be more what I’m looking for.

  3. Nice review Myndi. So it is not like Quincy MD on television then? I am not a big non-fiction buff but occasionally pick one up. Not sure if this will be one though.

    • Thanks, Carla! It is definitely not like Quincy MD, at least not in Marin County! It actually varies from county to county, if you can believe that. Ridiculous, really. If you aren’t into nonfiction to begin with, I definitely wouldn’t recommend reading this.

  4. Who knew about all the politics, Myndi?! And that you don’t have to be a medical doctor? Oh my! I definitely need to learn more about this. I had no idea. Wonderful, thoughtful review, and sorry the book wasn’t a better one.

    • Thanks, Jen! The more I read, the more I’m shocked about how politics seems to have a hand in everything, including a lot of places it doesn’t seem to belong. Even though I didn’t enjoy the book overall, I did get something out of it, so not a waste of time at least. 🙂

  5. Oh, this is fascinating!
    I remember when i was 18-19 or so, a friend of mine was talking about doing a course to be allowed to work in a morgue. Essentially i think kind of like a coroner? (not sure about the equivalent in my country) and i found it odd that they can do this without medical school first.

    • It’s been awhile since I read the book, so my recollection of the details is questionable, but as I recall it, a medical examiner, who would be medically trained, does the autopsy AND determines the cause of death. A coroner, on the other hand, is an elected official who works with an individual who does the autopsy, but ultimately they determine cause of death. Counties have one or the other. And counties that share borders don’t necessarily have a consistent approach which creates a real mess when there is overlap on a case. I’ll never understand why things have to be so crazy.

      I’d be intrigued to know how it works in your country!

      • I did a little investigation, and it seems to be similar in Hungary too. So that course my friend was talking about it basically a qualification for coroner apparently. It’s a 10 month course they can do and then they can participate in autopsy, supervised by a medical doctor. Ha!

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