Most sincerely dead: Glorious and gory coroner stories

by Ann G.

I’m sure the first time I heard the word coroner was in The Wizard of Oz:   “As coroner I must aver I thoroughly examined her—and she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead!”

vancouver hospital morgue instruments
Autopsy tools in the Vancouver General Hospital morgue; photo from Vancouver Coastal Health.

Since then, I’ve become an aficionado of murder mysteries, true and fictional, on pages or on-screen.  There is almost always a coroner, or medical examiner, but they often just serve as a foil to the detective.  The coroner sets (or guesses) the time and manner of death, and the sleuthing can continue.  But sometimes, gloriously, the coroner is the main attraction—you just have to be ready for a little bit of gore!

coroner tools for shelf talk post
More autopsy tools at Vancouver General Hospital.

For example, the memoir Murder on the Home Front takes place in London, England, during the blitz years of World War II.  Young Molly LeFebure takes a job as an assistant to the coroner, and they spend a fascinating (and busy) few years traveling the entire area: viewing, dissecting, and investigating suspicious deaths.  The drama of the time and place is part of the fun of reading her book, just as it is a central part of the fictional  Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill.  In The Coroner’s Lunch, Dr. Siri, the state coroner of Laos, has to negotiate his duties toward the corpses in his care, the delicate politics between Laos and Vietnam at the time, and an attempt on his life.

In addition to making great books, coroners make great TV and movies (here is an illustrious list of television medical examiners).  In the series Da Vinci’s Inquest, we see the city coroner of Vancouver, BC, Dominic Da Vinci, not only analyzing corpses but tracking down murderers.  Based on Tess Gerritsen’s novels, the action-packed TV series Rizzoli and Isles follows the two detectives through the mean streets of Boston.  And, for even more Hollywood, try the book Unnatural Death, which deals with the deaths of, among others, John F. Kennedy, Elvis, and John Belushi.

Happy, gory Halloween!


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