Tuesday 6 April 2010

Book Report: Death's Acre

Most of what I read can be largely classified as trash--exciting, violent, and not too taxing on the brain.  What I'm saying is, I don't read a lot of non-fiction.  But then Mina told me about this book that traced the history of the Body Farm.  I nodded as she talked at me, only vaguely aware of what she was yacking about.  "You know, that place where they study dead bodies," she said.  Of course I knew what a body farm was--I'd watched CSI.  What I didn't know was there was one capital-B Body Farm.  The only one, and it revolutionized forensic science.

So the next time I was at the bookstore I bought their only copy of Death's Acre, a pseudo-memoir by the Body Farm's founder Dr. Bill Bass.  In it Dr. Bass outlines how the Body Farm developed from a germ of an idea into the ground-breaking research facility it is today, but rather than just present the reader with a chronological series of events, the book instead deals with advances in forensic anthropology on a case-by-case basis.  Each chapter introduces us to some kind of development or breakthrough in forensic research that was either made by Dr. Bass himself or one of his students.

Formally called the Anthropology Research Facility, the Body Farm is part of the University of Tennessee's anthro department.  First "opened" in 1981, the research conducted at the facility has produced reports on insect activity, dismemberment, and all stages of body decomposition.  But the science at the Body Farm is really only half the book.  The other half is Dr. Bass' adventures as a world-leading forensic anthropologist and a badge-carrying member of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.  A good deal of his work involves establishing identity and time since death.  Thus, in addition to learning about the science of death, the reader is treated to personal--albeit rather clinical--accounts of murder investigations.  Although most of Dr. Bass' murder cases are perhaps largely unknown outside Tennessee, they don't lack for intrigue and shock.

In spite of the fact the book is grounded in forensic anthropology and science, the book reads a lot like a best-of or a how-not-to: the best of body identification; and how not to fake your own death.  I doubt very much Death's Acre will do anything to counter the "CSI effect", but the science is so interesting and the writing so accessible that the book should appeal to all readers regardless of their education (I quit hard science in grade 11).  I recommend it for any horror, mystery, or procedural fans who are interested to know how the dead tell their tales.

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