All That Remains
Standalone or series
First time reading this author?
Why I picked this
I saw Sue Black on a crime special of the Big Scottish Book Club (originally broadcast in 2020, but I watched it on catch-up in January 2021). She was talking about her new book, which is on my TBR pile, and told an anecdote that was both very funny and shocking. The way she told the story made me convinced her books would be a good reas, so I bought this one and the new one.
Review copy or purchase
What it’s about
Subtitled ‘A Life in Death’, All That Remains is the personal and professional reflections of Professor Dame Sue Black, a world-renowned forensic anatomist and friend and crime adviser to Val McDermid. In the book Sue talks about her personal reflections on death, and her experiences as her favourite uncle, mother and father died. She also talks about how she became a forensic anatomist (a job in a butcher shop and an aversion to rats both play a part in shaping her career), the science of it, and how she has put her work into practice across the world helping to identify bodies and provide evidence to bring justice for the victims of war atrocities, terrorism, accidents and natural disasters.
I’m not sure what I expected from this book. Sue’s matter of fact manner and the power of her anecdotes on the Big Scottish Book Club made me pretty sure that her books would be engaging. But, this was so much more than I could have hoped.
I was aware of Sue Black from acknowledgements in Val McDermid’s books and from news stories. Her name particularly stood out to me because she works at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and I live in the neighbouring city.
This book is part memoir, part explanation of the history, development and value of forensic anatomy. In some ways it reminds me of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. It balances helping people to understand the work, while also showing how that author got into that field. There’s also a similarity in that both Stephen King and Sue Black are passionate about their subjects, and have the ability to explain that passion to their readers in a really engaging way.
I love that Sue is pragmatic at her core. The way she writes about death and about her experiences shows a really down to earth person, who is quite modest about what she does, while really proud of the long-term achievements she has contributed to. She’s open and honest about why she works in a field some people would find distressing or unappealing. she shows how valuable her work has been from helping to identify the dead in natural disasters or the mass graves in war-torn countries, and her passion about teaching and learning shines through.
At the same time she’s not a robot. While she explains how she can compartmentalise the human trauma she sees and works in to maintain a scientific focus, she also shares in this book her own experiences of death. Her uncle, mother and father’s deaths were three different experiences, at different times in Sue’s life, and have helped to shape her sense of what a ‘good death’ looks like. Also, how different it is to lose a loved one even when you work with the dead on a daily basis.
These sections might be difficult to read if you are still grieving a loss. I was with my dad when whe passed away last year and reading Sue’s story of her own father’s death was a bit emotional. Although her story of performing an examination on her uncle’s corpse in the funeral home confirmed that my mum and I having a TV/book informed discussion about livor mortis while we waited for the doc to come and confirm Dad’s death wasn’t all that strange.
Overall, this is a fascinating read. A pragmatic, but enthralling, look at death and the amazing work of the people who work to learn from the dead to help the living, and reunite the anonymous dead with their identities and families.