It’s Black’s skills as a scientist, and her professionalism, that supply the bones of this book, but the gruelling human stories are the flesh of it. ‘The forensic anthropologist’s job is to try to read the bones of our skeleton as if they were a record, moving a professional stylus across them in search of the short, recognisable segments of body-based memory that form part of the song of a life.’ Her stories invite us to imagine the worst that can happen to us, or those we love. But I was also reminded of a pathologist who, on completing her autopsies, would pull off her gloves with a snap and announce: ‘Isn’t it good to be alive.’ There’s redemption here, too, and justice; there’s humanitarianism and compassion. Just don’t expect to find them in the index.
This material is written with clear expertise and lucidity. But the book isn’t a medical primer, since it will also appeal to aficionados of true crime, in that to explain her work and our bodies, she discusses various cases of note. These are both contemporary and historical, including The Monster of Terrazzo and the murderous doctor “Buck Ruxton”; the corpse of Lord Lovat and the murder of Maurice Bishop, leader of the New Jewel movement in Granada; the Dundee man suspected of being Jack the Ripper and Richard Huckle, “the UK’s most prolific paedophile”.
Written in Bone focuses mainly on Scottish cases among the hundreds she has investigated over the years, and each chapter takes a different anatomical specimen — such as the skull, the spine, the hand — to explain how, in solving a mystery, even the smallest bone can be a linchpin. The result is fascinating, and oddly life-affirming.
Readers of her first memoir, All That Remains, will be familiar with her style, which continues here in this very similar follow-up, a tour of the human skeleton and what secrets it contains about the manner of our lives and deaths. It is part anatomy teacher (these bits are dry to non-specialists) and part grisly war stories, which continue to deliver to rubberneckers like me. Of course, the book is stuffed with corpses, leaking out of suitcases, squashed in plant pots, and at one point Black stores the maggoty, severed heads of two prostitutes in buckets in the overhead luggage compartment of a plane. But while she is regaling us with her greatest hits of forensic detective work, my eye was always drawn back to her. Her extraordinarily cool, authoritative and bloody life leaks out the sides.