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BOOK REVIEW: Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

| 20 November 2014 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell 

Allen & Unwin
November 2014, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell





The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases, hair-raising and heartbreaking and impossibly complex, that shaped her as both a physician and a mother.

Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation, performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.

Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies, and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law and Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.


I like reading a wide variety of books. Fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, biographies, science, history… You name it!
But there’s no denying that some are a lot easier to read than others.
While I love reading about people’s lives and absorbing facts, I’d be kidding myself if I thought those books took the same amount of time or effort as a well written novel. No matter how well written said non-fiction book is in and of itself.

Working Stiff was different.

It could be the fact that I always wanted to get into forensics, or my own morbid fascination with the things people do to one another. It could be that it was written in a way that is accessible to the layperson, or that the grouping of similar manners of death led to few chapters and a very smooth read. Whatever the cause, I devoured this book!
Working Stiff is a no holds barred, honest look into the world of forensic pathology. It manages to avoid boring its readers by exploring the personal history of the specimens and throwing in some gallows humour, which one can only imagine would be a necessity for the job.
I found myself wanting to quote the whole book, but that would make for a very long review, and would defeat the purpose somewhat.

This book had its funny moments:

When presenting a case to Dr. Charles Hirsch, you had to refer to the decedent as a man, woman, boy, or girl-not as a male or a female. During our first week doing cases, Stuart presented the body of a man who had been “shot by a lady-”
“Shot by a woman,” Hirsch interrupted to correct him. “Ladies don’t shoot people.”

Interesting info about how certain bad habits and causes of death manifest:

Booker’s lungs showed a little bit of the expected damage from spending a week under mechanical ventilation, but they were otherwise healthy-pink, spongy, and soft. A smoker’s lungs are bubbly, black, hardened lumps, exactly like those photographs used to scare middle school children away from cigarettes. The worst ones crunch when you handle them.


My autopsy report included the notation “complete transection of all four limbs,” which means none of them was still attached when he came to me. Bowers’s left leg and right arm ended up on the eleventh floor. His left arm and right leg were on the seventh, separated by several yards of hallway carpet. Part of his skull and scalp landed in the elevator shaft. Everything else came to rest on the fourth floor, except his brain. His brain was still missing when I received the body bag; the scene investigators were collecting it floor by floor. On autopsy I found all of his remaining internal organs torn apart, indicating that Bowers must have bounced off several surfaces on the way down.

And, of course, things that make you go “ewww”:

The last things to come out of the abdominal cavity are the bladder and rectum. Removing them requires me to reach really deep down into the pelvis, cut around the anus from the inside, and pull. There is a horrible sucking sound that takes some getting used to, and if the bladder is full it feels like a water balloon. I am careful not to burst it.


Mr. Lavagnino’s silky white hair had entirely sloughed off and was lying over his right ear like a jostled wig. Maggots don’t like hair and bone, so they eat their way underneath the scalp tissue, marching along a plane. They leave each hair follicle a dimple, the bald bone of the skull exposed in their wake.


His liver wasn’t bloody and red like a normal one, nor was it floppy and pale from exsanguination. It was brown and firm. Same with the heart, kidney, spleen, and all the other viscera. Even the brain had been scalded solid. Veins and arteries had turned to sausage.


This book is a fun, fascinating, and sometimes devastating read for anyone who has ever been interested in forensics. It deals with some rather difficult situations, including murder, September 11, child death, and Anthrax, but the overall message is one of hope. This book says “hey, you’re still here.”

Even surrounded by so much death, so much ugliness, we carry on, live our lives, pursue our dreams.

And that’s what this living thing is all about.



Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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