A Forensic Ecologist on Life, Death, and Crime-Solving

Book review: The Nature of Life and Death, by Patricia Wiltshire (Amazon / Book Depository)

Patricia Wiltshire is a botanist, forensic ecologist, and palynologist — what she defines as “one who studies pollen and other palynomorphs.” She works with the police in the United Kingdom, drawing on decades of experience and meticulous microscopic examinations to determine what pollen, fungi, microbes and all manner of plant particles and elements from the natural world can reveal about crime scenes, the locations of missing and murdered people, and suspects.

Watchers of Forensic Files or similar shows have seen what kind of astonishing information can be sourced from plants, much of which is too small for the naked eye to notice. The connection between tiny traces of certain plant species to one small, specific area especially fascinates me, and this seemed a great resource for learning something more about how this branch of science works.

The book is both memoir of Wiltshire’s personal life and scientific study of her forensic work, and these elements feel disjointed. Some parts have a tone and topics quite similar to forensic anthropologist Sue Black’s All That Remains, but I did prefer Wiltshire’s voice here. It’s lighter, less chilly and removed, more introspective and open to acknowledging her own emotions.

Wiltshire has had a lot of hardship in her life, from rough family relationships to the breakup of her first marriage, her daughter’s death, her own serious health problems – but she’s positive, upbeat, and a committed atheist. I appreciated the way she talks about death as being a returning of natural elements that you’ve only been lent for a short while. It’s peaceful, intelligent, and reassuring in a way that I’ve found other stark portrayals of the act of dying not to be. (Including how it’s handled in Black’s book.) But it’s so thoughtful and well done here. There’s a sensitivity to it that’s lacking elsewhere.

It’s abundantly clear that she’s a qualified expert in her work and research, but that passion and expertise didn’t always translate into readable stories, and the memoir portions, though often touchingly lovely and heartfelt, didn’t quite coalesce together either. The switches between deeply personal memoir and recounting of cases from her career don’t feel connected. Descriptions of what she actually does in investigative work were difficult to follow, with fairly dry science writing. Sometimes the storytelling around it is a bit odd, employing an almost psychic-like language with a lot of “I close my eyes” and “I see a place like this” that came across strangely, considering the strong emphasis on science and fact. It seems to just be her method, but the dreaminess of it undermines believability to some extent.

Wiltshire acknowledges that her technique can seem a bit strange to law enforcement at first, but it’s clear they’re also impressed with what she’s able to determine about tiny, easily overlooked details and clues that end up providing crucial evidence and even resolving cases.

She avoids naming names or specifics in each case, which I can understand not wanting or being allowed to do, but the lack of so much identifying detail made it difficult for any case or scenario to stand out, especially when the science gets technical and hard to follow, or — and I hate to use this word but it’s unavoidable — boring. Most of the cases blended together, and the content in general skews more heavily towards science writing as opposed to true crime, for those expecting the latter. It’s also good to know that a significant amount of the book is about her personal life.

The biggest positive is that she comes across as an incredibly caring, sensitive person, and it’s comforting to know someone like this is doing this kind of work, and has helped many people find answers or peace of mind — that she’s been able to contribute so much good through her work, which is often terribly dark.

The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace
by Patricia Wiltshire
published September 3, 2019 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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10 thoughts on “A Forensic Ecologist on Life, Death, and Crime-Solving

  1. I tend to like when nonfiction books that look at cases or scenarios follows on big/main case throughout the whole book and discuss smaller cases along the way. It gives us something to anchor to.

    Your opening in which you describe how certain organic materials are only found in one area reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, actually. It seems he always knew the place where this one type of ink or paper or shaving cream or what have you was manufactured.

    As for how boring this book could be? I know the woman who wrote Lab Girl got some grief from the scientific community because she would use a more general term instead of the exact scientific term. She said in an NPR interview that she knows all these terms and specificities, but readers don’t — and it’s a book for readers, not the scientific community.

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    1. I like that in nonfiction too, but honestly I can’t even remember if it was done here because everything about the cases just completely ran together. I don’t think so though.

      Did you read Lab Girl? I have it but haven’t read it yet and got a love it or hate it vibe from it. I noticed it made Obama’s summer reading recommendations this year so that piqued my interest more. That’s a good point she makes, if it becomes too technical or there are too many esoteric processes to follow you lose the lay reader and then the whole message is pretty much lost.

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  2. Coincidentally I am currently reading Sue Black’s book. I am learning lots of fascinating stuff but it’s not a page turner for me. Once you said Wiltshire’s book is boring in some places, I put it onto the “give it a miss” list. So many books competing for a reader’s time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had the same experience with Black’s book — plenty of interesting things but I had trouble staying focused on it, I even put it aside for quite a long time before picking it up again which isn’t something I normally do. I hate to just say something is boring because it does immediately turn people off to it, and maybe what I find boring is fascinating to others, but it was kind of my strongest feeling here.

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  3. I’m sorry to hear that this one wasn’t better, because the topic is incredibly fascinating. I’m always interested in the way unique specialties can be used to solve crimes. I’m still considering picking this up, because it is such a cool topic, but my expectations are tempered 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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