The Bookworm Sez: 'Working Stiff' offers inside look at death

The Bookworm Sez: ‘Working Stiff’ offers inside look at death

Everybody’s good at something.

You may have an aptitude for numbers. You might be a master at chess, multitasking, organizing, or people skills. Your real talents could be hidden, or maybe the whole world knows how good you are.

Author Judy Melinek, M.D. loved doing surgery, but it had its drawbacks. And besides, as you’ll see in “Working Stiff” (with T.J. Mitchell, c.2014, Scribner $25, 258 pages), her real interest lay just this side of six feet under …

From the time she was very small, Judy Melinek’s father shared with her a fascination with the human body. He was a doctor; Melinek dreamed of becoming a doctor, too, and making him proud but she “never got the chance.” He committed suicide when she was just 13.

Still, she forged ahead and, upon graduation from UCLA medical school, she decided to become a surgeon. That specialty turned out to be a bad fit for Melinek, so she resigned from her residency position and turned instead to a medical branch that also intrigued her: forensic pathology.

Forensic pathologists, she says, investigate “sudden, unexpected, or violent deaths by visiting the scene, reviewing medical records, and performing an autopsy” while gathering evidence for possible legal reasons. You learn a lot about the human body when you’re a forensic pathologist and if “you knew how much hardware some of your fellow citizens are toting around in their knickers, you might see the world as a stranger … place.”

Forensic pathology only barely resembles what you see on TV. “Everyone thinks ‘murder’ when you say you work as a medical examiner,” she says, “but homicides are rare.” Still, in her career, she discovered evidence of them.

She also investigated overdoses and mis-doses, though “alcohol is the deadliest drug.” She helped police solve a crime in which a driver swore he didn’t hit-and-run. She gave comfort to the loved ones of the deceased she autopsied, and she learned why you want to brew coffee when investigating a long-dead body.

And on September 11, 2001, she got a call to help investigate “the largest mass murder in United States history.”

Visit your local library or bookstore and you’ll find a very long, long shelf of books by medical examiners. “Working Stiff” is one of the better ones.

Part of the reason for that, I think, is what you won’t see in this book: author Judy Melinek, M.D. doesn’t write about celebrities’ deaths. Her work was performed on regular people who likely would’ve lived long, anonymous lives but who died under circumstances that needed investigation.

The other appeal here is what you will see: interesting stories of crime, death, the human body, and the ways they might intersect. Melinek (with T.J. Mitchell) is perfectly willing to share stories of that intersection, which is exactly why I loved this book.

Be aware that this is probably not something you’ll want to read at lunch. It can be gruesome and detailed but oh-so-fascinating, so if you’re strong-stomached and up for a slice-of-life book on slicing at death, then “Working Stiff” is a good one.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Email her at

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