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The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death

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In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors e In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion. He also learned about different kinds of firearms, all types of drugs—prescription and illegal—and about certain unexpected and potentially fatal phenomena such as autoeroticism. Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.


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In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors e In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion. He also learned about different kinds of firearms, all types of drugs—prescription and illegal—and about certain unexpected and potentially fatal phenomena such as autoeroticism. Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

30 review for The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death

  1. 5 out of 5

    Petra-masx

    Unusually for a profession, Ken Holmes came up through the ranks. He started as an embalmer, spent most of his career as a death investigator and then 12 years as the Marin County, California, elected coroner. The book is one case after the next presenting different aspects of a death investigator's and coroner's work. It is interesting and well-written but not earth-shattering. It might have been even better if we had learned more about Ken Holmes and than the bare bones Bateson wrote about.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Taryn

    Coroners deal with death, but their purpose is to find answers for the living. Ken Holmes's career at the Marin County coroner’s office spanned nearly forty years. He started out as a licensed embalmer at a funeral home, which led to him becoming a death investigator for the county. During the last twelve years of his career, he was the elected county coroner. In this book he reveals the intricacies of his job, a job that most people would rather not think about: the tell-tale signs our bodie Coroners deal with death, but their purpose is to find answers for the living. Ken Holmes's career at the Marin County coroner’s office spanned nearly forty years. He started out as a licensed embalmer at a funeral home, which led to him becoming a death investigator for the county. During the last twelve years of his career, he was the elected county coroner. In this book he reveals the intricacies of his job, a job that most people would rather not think about: the tell-tale signs our bodies leave behind, the collecting of evidence, the family notification process, differences between TV representations and real life, changes in technology over the years (fingerprint cartooning was a thing!), preparing the county for mass casualty events, running investigations in areas where people are hostile to law enforcement, working with press, and dealing with the politics. As an employee of the coroner's office, Holmes had to be not only a detective and a doctor, but a "consoler, advocate, educator, mentor, teacher, and bureaucrat." One of the most surprising things I learned from this book is that there aren't any national standards for coroners. In most states, it's an elected position. Not all coroners are medical examiners and often they aren't even required to have medical training. The author mentions that one Indiana county elected a high school senior as coroner! I also had to adjust the high-tech image in my head of what I thought a coroner's office looked like. The Marin County coroner's office doesn't even have a lab or morgue on premises. Those services are contracted to outside facilities. Marin County is an affluent area that's home to one end of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world's top suicide sites, and San Quentin Prison, location all of California’s 750 male death row inmates. Every year, approximately 300 of the 1,500-1,800 deaths in Marin County require autopsies. During his decades of experience, Holmes saw a wide variety of cases, both personally and through his colleagues' work. This book highlights the most interesting and memorable cases in his career, as well as the lessons he learned along the way. There are quite a few out-of the-ordinary incidents: a serial killer haunting the trails, a small cult near Holmes's home, celebrity victims and instigators, and the time Holmes became a witness to an active crime. Real life truly is stranger than fiction! I would've found many of the cases unbelievable if Holmes hadn't experienced them for himself. A large number of the victims he investigated died by their own hand; more than twice as many Americans die by suicide than by murder. Since these are real-life cases, they don't all have neat and tidy endings. Some of the cases took decades to solve and many only reached conclusion by a series of unlikely coincidences. Thanks to Holmes's impeccable record keeping skills and his dedication to following cases even after they left his hands, there's closure to more cases than I expected. There are so many fascinating cases in this book, but here are three that were extra memorable for me: • January 1978: Carol Filipelli died in what appeared to be a drug overdose, but her toxicology screen came back negative for drugs. Nothing was adding up, so Holmes was persistent and kept digging for answers. It turns out that she may have been murdered by a former lover with a highly unusual weapon, but unfortunately any evidence was destroyed when she was cremated. • June 1997: Death row inmate Sammie Marshall died after being forcibly removed from his cell. Holmes ruled it undetermined, but he believes it was a homicide and regrets succumbing to the pressure of law enforcement: “I’m not an advocate for inmates or anybody who does something bad, but I’m an advocate for doing something the right way, and they did it wrong." There's a revelation at the end of the chapter that makes the story all the more tragic. • Two brothers thought a small town bank would be an easy target, but got more than they bargained for! The bank teller made four calls to handle the situation and only the last one was to the police department. “The more time you spend around death, the more you appreciate life." Not every victim gets justice. Sometimes by the time the details of the case become clearer, there's no way to prove their theories. Other times there are political concerns and budget constraints. The cops or district attorney may not want to deal with a case for various reasons, so the coroner's office might receive pressure to rule a certain way. Most California counties have a combined sheriff's/coroner's office where the sheriff is the coroner. During Holmes's tenure, the Marin County coroner's office operated separately from the sheriff's office. He outlines the benefits to having an independent coroner's office. For instance, law enforcement has priorities that may come into conflict with the interests of the victims' families. The time constraints of a combined office can lead to families never getting answers. In a couple of baffling cases, a person's death was determined to be a suicide even though there were multiple clues that pointed to foul play. “Every death has a story, just like every life. Coroners are privy to it in ways that other professions are not. That’s what draws people like me to it, the chance to be present, understand, and help others deal with something that usually is awful, at a time when people tend to feel most alone.” The body's process of shutting down may be gruesome, but it's an inescapable part of our life cycle. This book was a real page-turner! It has a very small-town feel, both because of the time Holmes spends on each case, as well as his and the author's personal connections to some of the victims. I side-eyed a few of the casual conclusions made based on appearances, but for the most part, this book is a fascinating look at a long and varied career. In the conclusion, Holmes talks about how his views on suicide victims, the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, and the justice system have evolved with his years of experience. I admired Holmes's dedication to the victims' families and the time and energy he devoted to their cases. His insistence on getting answers for the families made this book a compelling read. The author John Bateson also wrote The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. ________________ I received this book for free from Netgalley and Scribner. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. It will be available August 15, 2017.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    4.5 stars "Death knows no keeper. It's a great leveler. The rich & famous are touched the same as the average Joe." -- Ken Holmes, Marin County Coroner's Office (retired) An appropriate companion piece alongside Dr. Judy Melinek's excellent work bio Working Stiff (about her years in the New York City's Medical Examiner's Office), Bateson's The Education of a Coroner focuses on Ken Holmes and his 30+ year employment (1975-2011) in various positions with the Marin County Coroner's Office, a quiet co 4.5 stars "Death knows no keeper. It's a great leveler. The rich & famous are touched the same as the average Joe." -- Ken Holmes, Marin County Coroner's Office (retired) An appropriate companion piece alongside Dr. Judy Melinek's excellent work bio Working Stiff (about her years in the New York City's Medical Examiner's Office), Bateson's The Education of a Coroner focuses on Ken Holmes and his 30+ year employment (1975-2011) in various positions with the Marin County Coroner's Office, a quiet community located just north of San Francisco. (Part of the county's jurisdiction includes a section of the Golden Gate Bridge, with its many associated suicides.) Although relatively small in size, Marin boasts a quarter-million population of various economic classes, is surrounded on three sides by water, and is home to the infamous San Quentin Prison. Although there can be some confusion, coroner and medical examiner are not the same occupation in the U.S., though a person can hold both jobs and/or the positions are combined depending on the particular jurisdiction. The coroner is an elected title (like sheriff or district attorney), and his/her staff's investigatory duties are determining time / cause / manner of death in incidents where it is suspicious, sudden, unexpected, and/or not witnessed by a physician. Said position also does not necessarily require any medical training or degree, though they order and attend required autopsies. Holmes recounts many of the noteworthy or interesting cases from his career, including a number of murders (or suspected murders - reading between the lines, Holmes is politely but not exactly angrily 'settling the score' on a few cases where proof could not be conclusively reached), suicide incidents, and some relatively mundane but odd vehicle accidents. It was all sort of morbidly fascinating.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn

    Ken Holmes career as a coroner in Marin County, California spanned more than four decades. During that time he oversaw many deaths - accidents, suicides and homicides, some straightforward and some complex and some cases that took many years to finally solve. He prided himself on being a voice for the dead and finding the truth for their families. In telling his stories to John Bateson, he has allowed us to enter his fascinating world and career. Ken Holmes really did learn his career on the job. Ken Holmes career as a coroner in Marin County, California spanned more than four decades. During that time he oversaw many deaths - accidents, suicides and homicides, some straightforward and some complex and some cases that took many years to finally solve. He prided himself on being a voice for the dead and finding the truth for their families. In telling his stories to John Bateson, he has allowed us to enter his fascinating world and career. Ken Holmes really did learn his career on the job. Starting as a mortuary assistant he became fascinated in the causes of death and moved onto a job as a death investigator for Marin County eventually becoming the Coroner. During that time he investigated serial killings, jumpers from the Golden Gate, overdoses, gun deaths and some notorious cases that made the National news. He also discusses the process of death and the changes that the body undergoes that helps Coroners know the time and sometimes place of death. Recommended if you enjoy reading about forensic science or true crime. With thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Scribner for a copy of the book to read and review

  5. 5 out of 5

    Aimee (Book It Forward)

    As creepy as this sounds...I LOVED this book. I’ve always been very interested in crime and almost became a homicide detective. Unfortunately my stomach and heart couldn’t handle it. So I choose to live vicariously through the authors who write non-fiction books about all of the things related to murder and death. Again, I know that sounds creepy and I probably sound like a weirdo but I’m sure I’m not alone! People like us who enjoy reading these kinds of books are interested in the stories behi As creepy as this sounds...I LOVED this book. I’ve always been very interested in crime and almost became a homicide detective. Unfortunately my stomach and heart couldn’t handle it. So I choose to live vicariously through the authors who write non-fiction books about all of the things related to murder and death. Again, I know that sounds creepy and I probably sound like a weirdo but I’m sure I’m not alone! People like us who enjoy reading these kinds of books are interested in the stories behind death cases but just need to view them from an arms length away. This book was so good! I actually received an advanced copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review and this is one of my top favorites books they have ever given me. The Education of a Coroner was written by the Coroner in Marin County which is just a hop, skip and a jump away from where I live. The stories he told about suicide victims being recovered from the Golden Gate Bridge was especially interesting to me because I’ve seen the actual smoke flares they shoot off right after someone has jumped. The stories behind these deaths are at times tragic, but the author finds humor where he can and remains very respectful to the victims. It was a very informative book and I read it very fast!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    What you expect? Not really, this is more a case study after case study. It is "this is what we found, this is what we decided"- and by case a definition of that case. Not all that much about education toward the job description at all. But that he got it (the job) because he had the "embalming license" and therefore was used to corpse contact; that particular was rather insightful. It's a read that will teach you about the most common Marin County's (CA) autopsy examples, that's for sure. And a What you expect? Not really, this is more a case study after case study. It is "this is what we found, this is what we decided"- and by case a definition of that case. Not all that much about education toward the job description at all. But that he got it (the job) because he had the "embalming license" and therefore was used to corpse contact; that particular was rather insightful. It's a read that will teach you about the most common Marin County's (CA) autopsy examples, that's for sure. And also some longer past years' decisions. Lots of suicides and bridge jumpers here, it seems, and he has written a book on that category. Because I have seemed to read so many other better books in forensics particularly within the coroner authored, I don't think this book is bad, as much as it just wasn't for me in comparisons to several others in the field. Especially in the writing style and the way it was presented here- not a fan! I'm fairly sure John Bateson is a HUGE fan of Holmes though. The photos were representative too of the tone and that feature. Holmes' photos "on the job" or running for office- most of the time it is all about him and his trending career progression as the central focus? Not the victim photos though, those were informative in a different way and not Holmes centered at core. I would rate this 2.5 stars but rounded it up for the factual Marin County reality for this job. There is a gift in presenting this kind of material that may border on harsh but for me works because of its also holding the sensibility of tone and other writing skills of continuity to "method" or some other definitive feature of practice. This one fell short in comparisons on these aspects. But if you have interest in some past and especially more "celeb" based cases- you may like this instructional detailing and case study successions of his own work more than I did.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lolly K Dandeneau

    via my blog: https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/ “Some deaths, on the other hand were just head-scratches, so strange that they almost defied belief.” This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read about a coroner. Handled with delicacy and respect for both the living and dead rather than being ‘sensationalism’, Bateson tells the real story of what such a career entails. Without a question, much skill and intelligence is required in solving such mysteries, working in reverse to via my blog: https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/ “Some deaths, on the other hand were just head-scratches, so strange that they almost defied belief.” This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read about a coroner. Handled with delicacy and respect for both the living and dead rather than being ‘sensationalism’, Bateson tells the real story of what such a career entails. Without a question, much skill and intelligence is required in solving such mysteries, working in reverse to uncover the truth. But also, a lot of humanity. Ken Holmes worked as both death investigator and coroner in Marin County, California. With a three term career elected as coroner, Holmes had seen everything about death. From murders, suicides, drugs, and auto-eroticism each case had it’s own unique challenges. Controlling scenes are a little thought of task, not just the gawkers, but the dangerous neighborhoods where anyone in ‘authority’ are not welcome. The terrible reality of suicides off the infamous golden gate bridge and why where a body ends up can change the entire direction of solving what happened, a sometimes sad fact. Suicide is not romanticized anymore than any other death in this work, unlike what we read in our fiction or see on television. Not having all the clues come together can cause years of heartache for family and friends, particularly when someone disappears and their body ends up elsewhere, unidentified as happens in a case, found in the chapter titled The German Tourist. Ken Holmes’ dedication is evident in each case he handled, and his humanity too as the deceased and their survivors have remained in his heart and mind. It is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking career, and thank God for people that are able to put aside their natural reactions (such as fear, repulsion) and uncover clues creating a semblance of order in finding the truth of what happened. It takes courage and strength to go against authority, and just as much to speak to family members weighted down by not just grief but suspicion, distrust and anger. Going with your gut isn’t always popular but vital! Sometimes the answers are years in coming, but always remained fresh in Holmes’ mind. This is an engaging book dissecting Ken Homes’ fascinating long career. For a brief time the reader feels the weight of sorrow that follows Holmes but too the hope that he can at least provide answers for those left behind, as well as shed light birthing truth for victims that can no longer speak for themselves. Is there ever really closure? Of course not, but we need to know why death came and what is to blame, be it natural causes or death at another’s hand. We need to know the identity of the dead, because there is someone somewhere wondering what has happened to their loved one. This is an engaging work, and I didn’t feel like I was reading something tawdry nor gory. Do horrific things happen? Absolutely, but it’s not about the carnage, there is a lot to understand and learn. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t and won’t go into a detailed account of any of the true stories within, because this book won’t be out until August and also they need to be handled with delicacy and author John Bateson does a fine job all on his own. Yes, read it! Fascinating, heart-breaking, moving and beautifully written. Publication Date: August 15, 2017 Scribner

  8. 4 out of 5

    Valerity (Val)

    If you like coroner shows on TV you'll likely enjoy this book. It's full of behind the scenes info, and they chose many of the more interesting cases during Ken Holmes' nearly 40 years as a coroner. Lots of fascinating facts. it covers cases in Marin County, California which is a very beautiful area with some of the most expensive property in part of it, in another part it has a bridge with a high suicide rate, and yet another area, a prison full of a wide spread of case types. So it has all sor If you like coroner shows on TV you'll likely enjoy this book. It's full of behind the scenes info, and they chose many of the more interesting cases during Ken Holmes' nearly 40 years as a coroner. Lots of fascinating facts. it covers cases in Marin County, California which is a very beautiful area with some of the most expensive property in part of it, in another part it has a bridge with a high suicide rate, and yet another area, a prison full of a wide spread of case types. So it has all sorts of cases and covers everything from what's involved in covering a case from start to finish, what happens to John and Jane Doe cases, and things like what happens to all or any of the unclaimed property left behind by deceased people. My thanks to NetGalley, Scribner, and the author for providing me with an eARC in return for my unbiased review.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Barbara (The Bibliophage)

    3.5 stars Reading John Bateson's book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, is like reading a very grim tabloid. No gossipy or gory detail is spared, which sometimes felt overwhelming to me. But I like CSI-type shows and this was like binge watching them, except in a book. In a nutshell, the young Ken Holmes was interested in medicine and was a detailed thinker. But he wasn't much of a student, so he started working in mortuaries in the 1950s. This led him to the coroner's 3.5 stars Reading John Bateson's book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, is like reading a very grim tabloid. No gossipy or gory detail is spared, which sometimes felt overwhelming to me. But I like CSI-type shows and this was like binge watching them, except in a book. In a nutshell, the young Ken Holmes was interested in medicine and was a detailed thinker. But he wasn't much of a student, so he started working in mortuaries in the 1950s. This led him to the coroner's office as a death investigator, an assistant coroner, and coroner. He and Bateson met each other through work they've done on suicide prevention, and decided Holmes had some stories to tell. And boy, does he tell a helluva story. There are hundreds of cases from his Marin County coroner's office files in this book. Literally hundreds. That's why it gets overwhelming. There's very little "filler," or information outside of case after case. Don't get me wrong. Most of the cases are interesting, and some of them are jaw-dropping. Bateson includes context about the part of Marin where the death happened, for example was it a wealthy area, or did the house have a fantastic view of San Francisco Bay. Holmes made it a point to spend time with the family of the deceased, so he also learned details about their lives. And he has a steel trap of a memory, recalling copious details from decades ago. Holmes is also a man of his times, in that he's not afraid to be politically incorrect. He was born in the 1940s, so his prejudices leak out into the way he approaches cases or describes the players. I didn't find it incredibly offensive, but you might. For the most part, however, Holmes comes across as a dedicated civil servant who truly cared about the decedents and their families. The conclusion of the book is an interview-style discussion about death and grief. Holmes tells Bateson, “I firmly believe that we never have ‘closure’ following a death of someone close to us,” he says. “We may find some peace, we may ‘get through it’ and our lives continue, but true closure is elusive at best and probably nonexistent.” True as that is, in this case we do get closure because the book ends. I found it fascinating overall, with incredible detail. But don't read it if you're going through a rough patch and feeling a little down, since it's generally pretty depressing. Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for a digital advance readers copy in exchange for my honest review. Quotes included here may change in the final version of the book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County, California for a total of 36 years before his retirement at the end of 2010. The coroner’s career is bound to be eventful no matter where one works, but Marin County creates its fair share of special interest, what with all the suicides at Golden Gate Bridge, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to all your everyday sordid homicides. Bateson is Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County, California for a total of 36 years before his retirement at the end of 2010. The coroner’s career is bound to be eventful no matter where one works, but Marin County creates its fair share of special interest, what with all the suicides at Golden Gate Bridge, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to all your everyday sordid homicides. Bateson is the former executive director of a suicide prevention center in the Bay Area and the author of two previous books on the topic of suicide. He first met Holmes through his earlier research, and this book arose from interviews conducted in 2014–15 along with phone and e-mail follow-ups. He successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of details—which sometimes gets gory, as you might expect. If you’re hooked on CSI or otherwise fascinated by the means and aftermath of death, you should enjoy this as much as I did. (See also Working Stiff by Judy Melinek.)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Abi

    This was so interesting! I couldn't get enough!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Ames-Foley

    Find this review and more like it on my blog. **Note: I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion. This in no way impacts my review** cw: death, murder, sexual assault, rape culture, sexism, racism It's been a hot second since I've read some nonfiction and I was really looking forward to this book. I plucked it off Netgalley, thinking that it looked fascinating. From the beginning, it reeled me in. I think a lot of us find the concept of death fascinating, and the idea of Find this review and more like it on my blog. **Note: I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion. This in no way impacts my review** cw: death, murder, sexual assault, rape culture, sexism, racism It's been a hot second since I've read some nonfiction and I was really looking forward to this book. I plucked it off Netgalley, thinking that it looked fascinating. From the beginning, it reeled me in. I think a lot of us find the concept of death fascinating, and the idea of what follows here, in the corporeal world, isn't something I've thought much about, even though I've watched many crime dramas. For instance, I had no idea what a coroner's job entails. What I've gathered is that it's a great deal of investigative work and a position that requires intensely strong people skills, observational skills, and strength. Coroners quite literally see it all, and they assist the police very closely in their work when a death doesn't appear to be natural. It was really interesting to discover how the system operates after a person dies. As much as I enjoyed Holmes' anecdotes towards the beginning, things began to feel off to me about a quarter through the book. There's one specific quote that set me off, in which Holmes completely discredits a woman's rape allegation by saying that she was too heavy and not attractive enough to have been raped. He also throws in some casual racism regarding the situation.  I have no idea why the author thought this was appropriate to include because, to me, it discredits Holmes as a serious investigator. How many other alleged crimes has he shrugged off because of how a woman looks? He talks about the injustices that the dead face, but how about the living? Holmes then went on to tell what he thought was a heartwarming, funny story about a late coworker who egged on a bartender by speaking in a "Middle Eastern" accent. In talking about a robbery that he experienced, Holmes explained that he didn't pull out his gun because the store was "filled with women" who could have been hurt--as if he is only concerned with hurting women. And there was a horrifying story in which a man told Holmes that he was going to kill himself and Holmes did nothing.  In most instances it is required, if not legally then at the very least morally, to inform someone in a situation like that. Not only did Holmes keep this information to himself until after the fact--he also seemed not to express remorse for this decision, which struck me as shady and wrong. In addition to all of that, I felt super uncomfortable about the fact that the book referred to all the deceased by name and revealed intimate information about their lives and families. Some of these cases were decades old, but some weren't. I understand that most, if not all, of this information is probably public record, but it just felt really voyeuristic and like it was taking advantage of the deaths of all of these people just for the personal gain of these two men, Holmes and the author. After these issues started creeping in, the book began to drag on for me. It's less about the life of a coroner in general and more a memoir about one specific coroner's career. It is also important to note that Holmes is a relatively privileged man working in an extremely privileged environment ("Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health") and that this is an extremely biased view of both life and death. Generally an okay read and maybe something I'd recommend to folks interested in forensics, but I enjoyed it much less than I thought I would.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Darcysmom

    I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley for free in exchange for an honest review. John Bateson has written an engaging book that grabbed my attention and kept it from the first page to the last. Ken Holmes was an excellent subject for the book. His humility and humanity were an excellent counterpoint to the often grisly nature of his job. The cases that were featured showed how varied the day-to-day work of the coroner's office is. The politics of the office were often frustrating and mad I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley for free in exchange for an honest review. John Bateson has written an engaging book that grabbed my attention and kept it from the first page to the last. Ken Holmes was an excellent subject for the book. His humility and humanity were an excellent counterpoint to the often grisly nature of his job. The cases that were featured showed how varied the day-to-day work of the coroner's office is. The politics of the office were often frustrating and made me appreciate Mr. Holmes doggedness in defending the importance of the work an independent coroner's office does. Mr. Holmes's advocacy for the dead and their families was inspiring. His advice about grieving was sensitive and spot-on. I recommend this book for anyone who has enjoyed a police procedural in any format - it is eye opening and worth reading.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marika

    Ken Holmes spent 4 decades being a coroner in Marin County, Ca. and has a myriad of stories to tell. Author John Bateson tells how Holmes has worked in a wealthy community, but one that has a big problem with drug overdoses and deaths due to alcoholism. There is also the many suicides from those who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Readers will appreciate the honest, yet reverent way that the author approaches the important job of coroner, minus the gory details.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Boondockmom

    I have to admit I'm completely biased. I have known Ken Holmes since I lost my son Matthew when he disappeared in November 2007. Without a body there's no reason for a Coroner investigation. I did contact him to help calm my feelings of guilt… had we done enough to search for him? Should we have engaged the Coast Guard more frequently? Matthew disappeared during the time when a ship hit the Oakland Bay bridge and leaked oil all throughout the bay and shoreline. People walked along the Coast, so I have to admit I'm completely biased. I have known Ken Holmes since I lost my son Matthew when he disappeared in November 2007. Without a body there's no reason for a Coroner investigation. I did contact him to help calm my feelings of guilt… had we done enough to search for him? Should we have engaged the Coast Guard more frequently? Matthew disappeared during the time when a ship hit the Oakland Bay bridge and leaked oil all throughout the bay and shoreline. People walked along the Coast, so we were somewhat confident of recovery, but clearly that wasn't the case. This novel is focused on the entire career of Ken Holmes, and The Golden Gate Bridge suicides were a minor part in that. He essentially fell into this position but it had been a passion for him. Ken wanted to help by discovering answers that no one else could find and consoling families during major life events. Ken has done exceptionally well and was open, honest, and compassionate through all of it. I have known John Bateson for at least five years through suicide prevention efforts. I was interviewed for part of his book called "The Final Leap", and he is also a member of the BridgeRail foundation, which I have been a member of since 2008. John is exceptional in capturing the essence of Ken's career and keeps it very clear and concise. He doesn't add fluff to the stories that are heartbreaking sometimes horrendous. The book alone is enlightening for people who have no clue what goes on in the life of a coroner and how one would spend 40 years in that career. There are some highlights, as it does have famous names, but every person is special, every life is unique and needs to be honored and cherished. Ken Holmes clearly does that with everyone he encounters and John Bateson captures that.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Noorilhuda

    4.5 actually. brilliant, good, very well-done, well-organized. The book merges key events from Ken Holmes professional life with some of the most memorable of the 762 cases that Marin County coroner’s office dealt with between 1970-2010. Currently a 67-year old retiree, Holmes was a coroner for twelve years though he worked in the department for thirty-plus years. For all the scrutiny and paper record detail given to each case and the office politics, not much is told of Holmes’ home life, for e. 4.5 actually. brilliant, good, very well-done, well-organized. The book merges key events from Ken Holmes professional life with some of the most memorable of the 762 cases that Marin County coroner’s office dealt with between 1970-2010. Currently a 67-year old retiree, Holmes was a coroner for twelve years though he worked in the department for thirty-plus years. For all the scrutiny and paper record detail given to each case and the office politics, not much is told of Holmes’ home life, for e.g. how many times was he married? Affairs? Two divorces are mentioned: one in 90s and the other in 2002. How many children does he have? What was his relationship with wives and kids over the years? He sounds like a guy with a life though: he owned a 360-acre hunting ranch in Colusa County, 120 miles northeast of Marin; did auto racing, building, driving cars in circle track; camps; had a fancy car aka Ferrari which he later sold; a motorboat; two labrador retrievers; by his own admission, is an enthusiastic dancer; roots for 49ers and giants; and now works in ‘estate liquidation service’ and does consultancy in forensics. Also coaches youth sports and scouts. Nicely catalogued/ chapter-ized, some typos. Got an ARC, so hope the final version has pictures of crimes/ criminals / suspects / victims / survivors, and the main characters / officers. Also, of journal-notes; and the ‘dog-eared map’ of wannabe robbers undone by 4 phone calls (first 3 were to farmers!) I did not understand the list of books given at the end in bibliography - if something was taken from them and mentioned in the book, then there should be a corresponding page number. Two suicides (of a 17 year old boy and a 16-year old girlfriend) are the last ones mentioned in the book but they don’t have a corresponding record in the list of 762 cases that is given at the end: there is one of a 13 year old in Oct. 2010, and then of a 24 year old in May 2010; In Nov. 2010, meeting to merge coroner into sheriff’s office by Jan. 2011 is held. So no mention of these suicides. Holmes says: the more you are around death the more you appreciate death - that’s where my mind has been. suicide attitude is a mental health problem; in murder, an argument or grievance escalates, fueled by liquid or powder, male ego and machismo also enters ‘if I cant have u nobody else will.’ court system fails - punishment for marijuana vs. murders, for drugs you’re gone for life, for murder you’re out on good behavior plea bargain is worst but necessary poor have it the worst. Memorable stories and my impressions on them: - 15 trips of a 7-week old baby - (Devon, Katja, Jereme Gromer) - Baby called ‘Ndigo Campbell-Bremner Wilson-Wright’. (biracial: black+white) - never had Vit.D, never been out in sun, bones never developed - in an 800K priced gated house, 12 kids ranging in ages 8 months to 16years were kept in beyond cruel conditions. The man in charge was Winnfred Wright and there were 4 women ‘followers’. Devon, Katja, Jereme Gromer and Carol Bremner. Carol etc. should have gone to jail too - it’s nonsense to say that they were under fear of him when she was recruiting women / other prospective sexual partners for him - these women were not born with him or lived with him since infancy - they had been out in the world and seen the ropes. Mothers of 5 kids each get 7-10 years - that’s one and half years average for the misery that those kids faced for a decade (with lasting mental health issues). I think there should be a distinction between abuse, sadism and torture. Sometimes term ‘abuse’ doesn’t quite cut it. It was a classic case of women being sexually gratified and doped up who did not want to take responsibility for children or their own lives. - In 80s man stabbed 3 times in the heart, found dead on the kitchen floor, one wound in lung, the other in belly; knife cleaned in sink and and put on the magnetic knife holder; Three police officers looked at the crime scene: police couldn’t develop any other scenario or suspect so they suggested he must have stabbed and cleaned up the knife himself, only to lie on the floor and die! They concluded that in their report that it was a suicide! - Nils Exeter Edison - the german tourist, no ID, no clothing labels, bag has just clothing, no passport, no ticket, no airline tag, pays in cash, gives dinner to driver, goes to massage parlors, bars, dinner - for 3 days, ‘meets a friend at the bridge’. Doesn’t get solved 1986-2005 - is called ‘john doe 6-86’. For a while there I thought he wanted to bump someone off and got it first instead and why didn’t anyone check airport arrivals to know his identity? Anyways, he turns out to be Wolfram Fischer from a rich family, tells friends he’s going to U.S. with a lot of money ($3500/-15K) which he plans to spend in grand fashion before jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Case closed. - San Quentin’s Sammie Marshall - black man, uneducated, psychotic, convicted of killing a prostitute; In 1997, his death sentence was reversed by California SC - he died while being ‘moved from cell to cell.’ lawyer ‘ron slick’ - 40,000 suicides, vs. 18,000 homicides. annually in U.S. : many suiciders drink to dull their senses and overcome self-preservation instincts, to have a fearlessness about dying. - The Bridge: roadbed is 220ft above water making jumping from it equivalent to jumping from a 25 story building. 4ft high railing ‘to enhance the view’. It takes just 4-seconds to reach the floor - traveling at speed of 75-miles per hour. (usually death is due to extensive subcutaneous emphysema? of the body resulting in marked distention of all facial features; pattern bruises: deep bruises, broken bones, damaged internal organs. If a person is alive, water in lungs: last seconds excruciating pain and terror) - suicide is contagious - ‘This is the last place i will step, breathe, speak or cry,’ wrote a 15 year old suicider. - Carol Fillipelli, also known as Martha, Michelle, Maureen, Jade, Rose - an overdose that wasn’t, or so Holmes concludes: ‘wineglass with red liquid’ - Marlene out in 6 years! Riley the one with diminished capacity, gets life without parole. - Miwok Indian tribe - bones found during construction. - 1961/3 - the murder of Mrs. Jones by Mr. Jones - Tahitian wife ends up with everything! - 'Children of Thunder': Elvis Bishop’s ex-wife, her boyfriend James Gamble and Bishop’s daughter murdered in Christ plot, along with 3 others, by Glenn Taylor and Justin Helzer and Dawn Godman. - Tammy Vincent - (the girl who at first was thought of as one of the green river murder victims) - she had been stabbed, burnt and shot - Holmes theorizes she was done in by Gypsy Jokers, a motorcycle gang. Case never solved. - The Trailside Killer, David Carpenter, sex-offender who didn’t come up in records of released inmates due to a technicality. Things I did not understand: - One of the very first cases is a jumper at Golden Gate - how does one know someone did not throw the woman off the bridge? Details lacking. - Paroled offender Terry who kidnapped and killed a hitchhiker in his shed - what kind of injuries dod she have? It’s called gruesome but description is lacking: other than a neck slash wound and decomposition nothing is mentioned. - 25 year old secretary dies in house fire. Why in the name of hell would she go back and someone would believe her husband? Details lacking. - Gloria Ladd - suffocated her sons and took the dog to the Marine County Humane Society. Why? Details lacking. - Bill and Tasia Stephens - categorized as a case of ‘latino’ jealousy (is Latino jealousy a special mixture that ‘whites’ do not have?) Things I did not like: Marin County, as the author and Holmes remind us, is a rich county full of famous people who live/d there such as Bonne Raitt, Carlos Santana, Huey Lewis, Janis Joplin, Sammy Hagar, Van Morrison, Metallica, Grateful Dead, psychiatrist Martin Binder’s wife Gail Elizabeth Sunny Doney, and the brush-off with Tupac Shakur! etc. But mentioning Robin Williams killing himself in the same Marin County house where his mother died of natural causes, is taking the whole name-throwing bit a bit far: especially since Holmes did not have anything to do with his autopsy.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kazen

    As a lover of medical and medically-adjacent nonfiction I happily dug into Education of a Coroner. CSI without all the fake glamour? I'm there! The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is from Holmes' point of view but we're actually following the author, a professional acquaintance. Bateson goes through Holmes' records and conducts a series of interviews that form the backbone of the book. I found myself wishing he had done more synthesis of the material and gotten into Holmes' head instead As a lover of medical and medically-adjacent nonfiction I happily dug into Education of a Coroner. CSI without all the fake glamour? I'm there! The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is from Holmes' point of view but we're actually following the author, a professional acquaintance. Bateson goes through Holmes' records and conducts a series of interviews that form the backbone of the book. I found myself wishing he had done more synthesis of the material and gotten into Holmes' head instead of quoting him verbatum. There's a big difference between "Holmes thought" and "When I asked Holmes about it he said, 'Well, I thought...'" Luckily this distance only occurs in the sections dealing with Holmes' career. A large portion book is chock-a-block with fascinating cases from his 36 years on the job - suicides that may not have been suicides, genius (and not so genius) murder methods, clues that make or break an investigation. As a medical interpreter I found the chapter on death notifications the most interesting. If Holmes tried to couch the news in niceties it wouldn't be conveyed at all. He also learned to avoid saying something like "she succumbed" or "she didn't survive" or "it was fatal". he had to say the word dead or killed. If he didn't, if he said something like, "Unfortunately, she didn't make it," the next questions were "How bad was it?" "Where is she?" "Can I go talk to her?" because the person didn't hear. It was way too much information coming from a total stranger without any context or preamble. All in all Education of a Coroner is a fun read for those who want to know what the job involves in real life. While I found the beginning and end slow the amazing cases in the middle make up for it. Thanks to Scribner and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

  18. 5 out of 5

    georgia

    2017 317 pages This is quite an interesting book, if you are a murder mystery reader. Mr Holmes (interesting enough) is hired to be the coroner for marin county. This book contains his stories of how deaths were solved via technology, dna testing, plain old police work and messages the decomposing body tells. I thought it would be more morbid, but not so. What people do to others is deplorable, unforgiving and disgusting. Holmes gives an clear, yet not nauseating, ride in how the deceased body is 2017 317 pages This is quite an interesting book, if you are a murder mystery reader. Mr Holmes (interesting enough) is hired to be the coroner for marin county. This book contains his stories of how deaths were solved via technology, dna testing, plain old police work and messages the decomposing body tells. I thought it would be more morbid, but not so. What people do to others is deplorable, unforgiving and disgusting. Holmes gives an clear, yet not nauseating, ride in how the deceased body is studied to find how it died

  19. 4 out of 5

    Camille Sherek

    Very informative and good writing. Love this kind of stuff so I found it to be interesting learning about the life of coroner. Ken Holmes in my opinion had a difficult job dealing with death in all its forms. I like what he said about how you never really get closure: “I firmly believe we never have ‘closure’ following a death of someone close to us. We may find some peace, we may ‘get through it’ and our lives continue, but true closure is elusive at best and probably nonexistent.” Honest and v Very informative and good writing. Love this kind of stuff so I found it to be interesting learning about the life of coroner. Ken Holmes in my opinion had a difficult job dealing with death in all its forms. I like what he said about how you never really get closure: “I firmly believe we never have ‘closure’ following a death of someone close to us. We may find some peace, we may ‘get through it’ and our lives continue, but true closure is elusive at best and probably nonexistent.” Honest and very comfortable talking about something most people aren’t, death.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Koren

    Absolutely fascinating! This book follows a county coroner in Marin County, California through his 35-year career, the interesting cases he has seen and the things he has learned. It moves quickly, not spending long enough on one story to get bored. I will be looking for more by this author.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Jessop

    Fascinating. I couldn't put it down.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mrs. Danvers

    A very interesting and thorough examination of the role of a coroner, told anecdotally. Holmes, the Marin County coroner for many years, is portrayed very lovingly, giving the reader a window into the humanity behind the job title. 3.5 stars.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Magdalena Wajda

    Interesting for those who are into CSI, detective stories and so on. I don't know what I was expecting, really, but I guess my expectations were a bit raised by marketing efforts of the publisher. And the whole book turned out rather "meh", because it can be a bit boring at times. Good presentation of the profession.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sarahbeth Yamiolkowski

    John Bateson takes the reader on a journey through the career of Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes. Without sensationalism he highlights the highs, lows, and plateaus of a job that is often misrepresented in today's media. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in true crime, medical examination, and to those who are interested in a career as a coroner.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Bethany Woodson

    I mostly liked this book, the coroner himself is very interesting. There were various times though when the author was an overt patriarchy subscriber (victim blaming, use of sexist language, etc) that was distracting. Nothing out of the ordinary really but it was a detractor.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Interesting from start until finish.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laura Lacey

    This is an absolutely fascinating insight into the life of a coroner based near the Brooklyn Bridge. As a fan of medical nonfiction, true crime, and anything slightly morbid I really enjoyed this - it was almost as good as Mary Roach's Stiff. Bateson tells the stories with great humanity and humility. This work touches on every area of life and the experiences of so many people. He also really exposes the strange world of the coroners office and the odd relationship it has with politics and gove This is an absolutely fascinating insight into the life of a coroner based near the Brooklyn Bridge. As a fan of medical nonfiction, true crime, and anything slightly morbid I really enjoyed this - it was almost as good as Mary Roach's Stiff. Bateson tells the stories with great humanity and humility. This work touches on every area of life and the experiences of so many people. He also really exposes the strange world of the coroners office and the odd relationship it has with politics and government. Advice though - do not read out the bizarre deaths that you found entertaining to the in-laws, not a good way to ingratiate yourself. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC in return for an honest review.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kayo

    You'd think this might be disturbing and weird. Surprisingly interesting. Really enjoyed getting to know how they do their job and what kind of things they encounter. Sad at times, but its life. Thanks to author, Netgalley and publisher for the chance to read book. While I got the book for free, it had no bearing on the rating I gave it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    J Aislynn d'Merricksson

    ***This book as reviewed for the San Francisco and Seattle Book Reviews, and for Scribner via Netgalley Education of a Coroner by John Bateson tells the intriguing experiences of Ken Holmes, former coroner of Marin County in California. For forty-odd years, Holmes worked in the coroner's office, first as a death investigator, then later as assistant coroner and head coroner. Coroners are different than medical examiners. They are elected officials who may, or may not, as in Holmes’ case, be a med ***This book as reviewed for the San Francisco and Seattle Book Reviews, and for Scribner via Netgalley Education of a Coroner by John Bateson tells the intriguing experiences of Ken Holmes, former coroner of Marin County in California. For forty-odd years, Holmes worked in the coroner's office, first as a death investigator, then later as assistant coroner and head coroner. Coroners are different than medical examiners. They are elected officials who may, or may not, as in Holmes’ case, be a medical doctor. If they are not, then bodies for autopsy are contracted out to mortuaries or hospitals. Through his stories, it is easy to see Holmes is devoted to the truth, and is a compassionate empath. Cases were pursued to the most logical conclusion, and some stayed open for years! As an independent agent, Holmes did not weigh favour to law enforcement or the courts. He followed the truth. There were cases he pushed as murder when others would have it not so, and other cases, such as that of Sammie in San Quentin, where he stuck to truth rather than exculpatory silence. It was so sad to realise how prevalent suicide is, especially from the Golden Gate Bridge. It was in part thanks to Holmes that sturdier protections were added to the bridge to discourage jumpers. Wolfram's story hit me hard. I fear dying, and no one being able to identify my body (or just not care…). It was heartening to learn he was finally identified. That family found resolution. I've always loved forensics. I was set to be a forensic anthropologist before health concerns put paid to that. It was a good thing, in retrospect. I would have long since burnt out. I think I'd love to meet Holmes just to sit and listen to his stories in person. Death captivates us all (says the person watching Most Haunted...), whether we acknowledge it or not. It is the ultimate unknown. Coroners and medical examiners dance that blurred line on a daily basis, becoming close friends with Thanatos. This book tells of murders, suicides, accidental death, and natural deaths. There is Sammie, the San Quentin prisoner, dead unnecessarily, Tupac, the rap star murdered too yoUng, overdoses like that of young River Phoenix, and more. Bateson is a masterful storyteller, making for captivating reading. Humour is, by necessity, threaded through the narrative. Mirth, bordering on gallows betimes, helps defuse the wiry coils of tension that confronting death winds in the body and mind. Referring to the FBI van as the 'Costco for forensics’ or noting that 'For one thing, Bertha was dead and not going anywhere until Holmes okay’d it, so she could wait’, injects levity into solemn situations, which helps when reading such weighty material, and is critical when confronted by it in the field, day after day. That lesson my group and I learned fairl quick! 📚📚📚📚📚 Highly recommended for those interested in forensics or memoirs.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Celia

    While this book had some interesting stories about cases the cases Ken Holmes, who worked with the Marin County’s coroner’s office for thirty-four years, worked on, the book is more a collection of stories than a unified book on a subject. The book is based on a series of interviews that the author John Bateson had with Kenneth Holmes who worked for thirty-four years in a variety of positions in the Coroner of Marin’s county’s office eventually becoming the Coroner of the county himself. Before I While this book had some interesting stories about cases the cases Ken Holmes, who worked with the Marin County’s coroner’s office for thirty-four years, worked on, the book is more a collection of stories than a unified book on a subject. The book is based on a series of interviews that the author John Bateson had with Kenneth Holmes who worked for thirty-four years in a variety of positions in the Coroner of Marin’s county’s office eventually becoming the Coroner of the county himself. Before I read this book, I did not know that to be a Coroner one does not have to be a Medical Examiner. A medical examiner is a doctor who is trained in pathology. A coroner is someone who investigates a death. What training a coroner has depends on the laws of the local jurisdiction. However, many coroners are closer in training to the police than to doctors. The most enjoyable parts of the book are when the descriptions of the cases on which Ken Holmes worked. Marin County is located just outside San Francisco (before I read this book I thought it included San Francisco). It is both very affluent and it is known for the avant- gard lifestyles of its inhabitants. To be totally honest, I once thought it a county of crazy rich people. The cases described in this book reflect the lifestyles of Marin County. They involve cults, drugs, call girls, and adult entertainment. One problem with this book is that it alternates between describing Mr. Holmes cases and Holmes the Mr. Holmes used in investigating deaths. This changing of focus lead to the book wandering from one subject to another. The book would have been better focusing either on the cases or on Mr. Holmes and his career. However, Mr. Holmes as subject is not as interesting as his cases. He is very careful about what he says (he is a politician has been elected to office three times). Furthermore, Mr. Bateson does not challenge the Mr. Holmes in anyway. Perhaps the book might have been better if it was written in the first person with Mr. Holmes being the narrator and Mr. Bateson being a coauthor. In the thirty-six years that Ken Holmes worked in the Coroner’s office there have been tremendous technological and societal changes that you would think have major influences on Ken Holmes work. However, the book does not go into these changes at all. The book lacks a certain amount of introspection and a unified theme. If you want to read about Marin County, the book delivers. If one wants to read about being a coroner, the book leaves something to be desired. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a honest review.

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