Book review: Never suck a dead man’s hand

Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand. By Dana Kollmann, Merlin, €13
Published Sunday, September 07, 2008 in The Sunday Business Post

With CSI and Cold Case among the most popular shows on TV, the public’s voracious appetite for police procedural stories shows no signs of abating. We seem to be endlessly fascinated with what goes on behind the police tape at the scene of a crime, but where once the detective was the hero, today it’s crime scene investigators who hog the fictional limelight.

Except real life isn’t like TV. In Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand, veteran crime scene investigator Dana Kollmann shares the story of her ten year stint in Baltimore as the person the cops call to asses crime scenes before the bodies are taken away and the blood is hosed off the footpath.

Kollmann’s book is extremely entertaining, but not for the faint hearted or weak stomached. It’s got car-crash appeal — you don’t want to look but somehow can’t quite stop yourself. Written in the form of a memoir, the book gives the reader a fascinating look behind the scenes, giving an insight not just into the day to day techniques used by forensic investigators but also into the mindset necessary to sustain normality in the face of this type of day to day horror.

Unlike the characters in the TV shows Kollmann has been there, and she wants you to know that reality is not just stranger than fiction, it’s frequently ickier as well. From collecting tissue samples from decomposing bodies to dealing with a crime scene in which a man shot himself and bits of brain got stuck on a rotating ceiling fan, going to work in this job takes a special kind of character.

Kollmann herself makes the point that there are two ways to deal with witnessing traumatic events on the job — you can laugh or cry, and those that can’t laugh don’t last. The book reflects the kind of gallows humour necessary for her to leave what she saw on the job behind at the end of each shift.

While the stories in the book are often extreme, perhaps more interesting are the titbits of forensic science Kollmann shares. For example, did you know there are several different kinds of rigor apart from rigor mortis? Or that wearing latex gloves doesn’t stop criminals from leaving fingerprints?

Interestingly, according to Kollmann the degree of interest in forensic matters generated by TV shows and popular fiction isn’t entirely a good thing. She points out that many of these shows portray forensic evidence as the star witness in criminal trials and as a result, members of the public called to serve on juries often have unrealistic ideas about what forensics is and what can and cannot be proved.

If forensic science doesn’t play a prominent role in a trial or no forensically valuable evidence was collectable from the crime scene, then jurors often come to the misguided assumption that the prosecution case must be weak or that the police and crime scene investigators must not have looked properly. She makes the point that forensic evidence is not always there, does not always solve the crime and is not always infallible.

Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand is certainly a unique book, and if you’re a fan of police procedural TV shows and want an idea of what the real thing is like, then you’ll be hooked from the first page. It’s not pretty, but then Kollmann would say that nether are the things people do to each other at crime scenes.

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