My Favourite Coroner
One of the things I’m often asked is “Just how realistic is CSI?” My standard reply is that CSI is excellent forensic science fiction – it captures the spirit of the work very well, and uses the science creatively. In the real world, of course, it’s never quite as glamorous or slick or downright sexy as it is in widescreen, blue-lit high definition.
And that’s as it should be: if you want the real deal, watch a documentary. Quite a few people in the forensics dodge snort dismissively about CSI, but the fact is, the real work lives of forensic scientists would rarely lead to compelling viewing, and the stretches that the writers at CSI make are imaginative, and, for the most part, at least half-credible.
The forensic pathologist on CSI – the bearded older man – is a decent type, but sometimes I get irritated when Gil Grissom, a criminalist, schools him on his work. The segregation of responsibilities and expertise in forensics is fairly rigid; few criminalists have solid training in forensic pathology, often relying, instead, on the rich folklore of the law enforcement community. I do like the medical examiner on CSI: New York, although it’s a show I don’t really watch – it’s set where I work, and as such even I can’t tolerate the yawning chasm between TV and reality. The CSI people actually came by the NYC ME office back when they were still in pre-production. Hill Harper, who plays their ME, hung out with us a bit; he asked what book he should be reading in bed when his character appears onscreen for the first time. I recommended Russian Prison Tattoos – a little obscure, but cool and advanced; they went with a basic forensic pathology textbook, which I felt was wrong for an experienced, superbright ME.
An excellent suggestion snubbed! I was pleased, then, when I recently saw the trailer for Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s next film, which features a British forensic pathologist identifying Russian jailhouse ink.
I absolutely don’t watch CSI: Miami (I did my forensic training in Miami, but the real barrier is that I can’t get past David Carusoe), but I’ve seen segments of the show where the ME caresses and whispers to the body: that’s just gross!
Mostly, TV and movie MEs are forgettable, bland types, usually old and slightly cranky at being called out to examine a body. There’s a few I think have been near the mark. One I barely remember: a scene in Hill Street Blues where Captain Furillo chews out the medical examiner for having screwed up royally, the ME defending himself by going on about the unsustainable workload in his underfunded office, and Furillo saying that none of that matters – autopsy results are vitally important, and must always be unimpeachable. I wasn’t an ME at that point, but in retrospect, that sounds about right.
Beyond that episode, the most realistic ME I’ve seen on TV was the guy on (and this hardly surprising – the show is amazingly brilliant, and gets so much right) The Wire. He’s a little peculiar-looking, but we’re a somewhat marginalized group, and we have a few peculiar-looking practitioners in our guild. The thing is, his opinions are usually within the limits of what we are generally able to say, without distortion or reaching. The British crime shows, too, tend to be closer to the mark than the American, in general.
In the movies, I remember liking Donald Pleasance’s philosophical coroner in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, but my favourite ME ever is Doc Kennedy, from Robert Aldrich’s luridly brilliant 1955 noir Kiss Me Deadly. Kennedy is a weasely, venal little fuck with a voice like Sterling Holloway on a gin bender – the kind of guy who you instantly loathe and who you pray will get a beatdown in short order.
Mike Hammer figures out that the pathologist has recovered a vital clue – a key – from the victim’s stomach. The doctor reaches into his desk drawer and produces the key, stretching out his palm to Hammer for a bribe. When Hammer can’t pay his asking price, Kennedy starts to put the key back in the drawer; Hammer leans forward, jamming the drawer shut to crush the coroner’s hand. It’s a monstrous scene, Aldrich cutting from the hand being mangled to Hammer’s look of sadistic glee, the doctor howling away in the background. Finally, Hammer just takes the key, letting the coroner fall to the floor to whimper and moan.
I suppose Kennedy isn’t my favourite medical examiner, but it’s one of the few scenes with an ME who at least has a real character. Even if he does kinda deserve the brutal torture Hammer metes out…
Percy Helton, who plays Doc Kennedy in Kiss Me Deadly