Monday, November 18, 2013

The Death Investigator - A New Character Arrives On the Scene: Information for Writers


Manuel looked at the dark holes in the men’s foreheads. Felt the silence. Dead. Yes, must be dead. They were dead. Manuel’s mind tried to grasp this simple fact. 
 ~  Missing Lynx

 So you're writing right along, thrilled that your fingers are tripping over the keys when shock of all shockers your heroine stumbles on a body. She toes it, hoping maybe it's just a drunk, but the smell tells her she's not so lucky. Shoot! Not only did you give your heroine a very bad day and the seeds of her future nightmares, but now your romance has turned into something else. Who should she call?

Well, 911 to begin with. But they will send out a group of people who are not all playing on the same team. One of the players MUST be the coroner (if it's a small town or rural area) or the coroner's investigator/death investigator.

Well who is that? They've never shown up in any of the books you've read.

Death Investigators or Coroner's Investigators - 

* are specialists who become involved in all deaths that
   were not expected. 
* They help determine if the death should 
    be further considered for criminal review or if the cause was
   natural or accidental in nature. 
* These are the people who show up to represent the coroner and communicate with the coroners office. 
* If necessary they take photos and start to gather information for a forensic death investigation.
* Focuses on the pathology. They assume foul play until it is proven otherwise.
* Develop cases for criminal acts of murder or manslaughter
* Develop cases for civil suits such as product safety failures
* Coroner's Investigators are called to testify in court.
    Video Quick Study (4:53) Testifying as to her job
    Video Quick Study (1:38) death investigator talks about how many deaths he handles and talking with

PLOT TWIST POTENTIAL - the death investigator tries to document EVERYTHING because a body can change in transit. For example, the hearse could be in an accident when the murderer pursues them and forces the car off a cliff! The body could be jetted out the back. Now the body looks very different and perhaps the tell tale markings were abraded away...  

There are no federal laws that govern death investigation. The Model Postmortem Examination Act 1954 LINK to Act gives states guidelines for their laws. So you'll need to figure out the laws for the state your body is found.

Deaths must always be reported (though not necessarily investigated) when there is a:
* homicide (or possible homicide)
* sudden or unexpected death
* suicide
* in any institution other than the hospital
* work related
* public

1. Once a death investigator arrives they start documenting the basic questions:
* Who found the body BUT NOT who killed the person
* What was the condition of the body (clothing etc.) this includes stains, tears, and markings
* Where was it found - this includes the temperature and humidity levels as well as objects in the vicinity.
* How was it placed

Notice that there is no WHY? the "why" belongs to someone else. Though they might gather information that would help with an autopsy such as evidence that the person was depressed/suicidal.

2. They will then make decisions about preserving and transporting the body
3. Try to identify time of death
4. Up close and personal - a death investigator will
* Interview family and friends for clues into the death.
* Search the dead person's home to include reading materials, computers, read their journals etc. trying to get
   an understanding of what might have happened. They might, for example, collect the medical bottles to see
   if there was an interaction that killed the person. Or there was a possible overdose.
   LINK to blog article on Forensic Toxicology

Need a plot twist???

What is a coroner? Video Quick Study (1:49)
Coroners are sometimes elected and may have no idea what they are doing.
In many places, the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn’t a doctor at all. In nearly 1,600 counties across the country, elected or appointed coroners who may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes.LINK  
Video Quick Study (3:49) Untrained coroner and Michael Jordan's father's murder case.
Video Quick Study (3:24) Recommended standards that would make the death investigation accredited and peopled by doctors run by medical examiner not a coroner.
This is long but very interesting and informative. Video LONG study (1:09:37)

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. Ooooh, Fiona, you can't know how timely it is to read this post from you. Love it, thanks for some great information and resources,

    1. Sorry, Eden, somehow I missed this comment. I'm so glad it was helpful - can't wait to read your newest!

  2. Some counties elect coroners with no medical expertise?! That's crazy! And totally a novel waiting to happen...

  3. Hi, Fiona! Do you know of any great novels besides the J.J. Graves mysteries & Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta novels that feature a coroner as the lead character (preferably wrought in 1st person)?