The introspection that enables Shepherd’s recovery, a rough stitching back together of his life’s parts, elevates Unnatural Causes (cute subtitle: “The life and many deaths of Britain’s top forensic pathologist”) to one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. Earlier this year the forensic anthropologist Sue Black wrote All That Remains, her memoir of a life studying dead humans. Black’s is a good book, a brisker, more science-based work, but Unnatural Causes is actually a page-turner. That comes from his unusual vulnerability, exposed so rarely by doctors, combined with his work of the highest status and a natural nose for a story.
According to Shepherd, “pathology tells its own story”, and he shows this brilliantly by taking the reader through the often gory details of the cases he has dealt with, including the Marchioness disaster and the killings of Rachel Nickell and Stephen Lawrence. Despite its impact on his personal life, his belief in the importance of his work and his love of solving “death’s puzzle” is undimmed: “As humans, we have a need to know. About specific deaths. About death in general.”
This fascinating memoir includes the personal as well as the professional: the death of Shepherd’s mother from a heart condition when he was nine, his medical training, his marriage and his experiences of parenthood, not to mention the psychological toll of dealing with death every day and the stresses of giving evidence in court. Revealing the humanity with which he treats his cases, Shepherd’s memoir is insightful, candid and compassionate.