Death’s Acre is all about the man, Dr. William Bass, who started the body farm at the University of Tennessee. The Body Farm is nothing new to those who have read Stiff by Mary Roach and other such explorations of the lives of dead bodies, and so I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to read Death’s Acre.
The book traces Dr. Bass’s early career, his near-foray into another academic area, his introduction to consulting on criminal cases, and how the need came about for greater research on the decomposition of bodies if crimes were to be solved. (This happened in no small part because a Civil War soldier was mistakenly identified as a recently deceased body.) Essentially, Bass is the reason that forensic science’s use with regard to solving crimes has taken off so much in the past 50 years, and given rise to TV shows in which it is regularly used.
Dr. Bass, with the help of Jon Jefferson, goes on to detail various cases on which he has consulted and research projects his graduate students have done in areas where more information was clearly needed, such as insects with regard to decomposing bodies. All of this is fairly grisly in the level of detail, but also quite matter of fact and respectful to the dead (despite the fact that Bass excavated a number of Native American cemeteries in the 1950s and as such is not well regarded in some communities).
I found the book fascinating, and raved about it to my husband over brunch one day while he frantically tried to shush me from out of concern for fellow diners. I also found it a book I had to take breaks from because of the devastating crimes Bass recounts. The book reads very easily, is readily accessible to non-scientists (though I doubt it would have the level of technical detail to be of interest to those with a background in the field), and has a sense of humor about it as well as a modesty. Bass is proud of his accomplishments and the crimes he has been able to successful assist with, but he is even more proud of his students. He’s also acutely aware of the limits of his profession, in so much as he can offer explanations or hypotheses, but he cannot ensure juries and judges will convict people. Bass is intriguing as an indirect subject of his own book, and Jon Jefferson is to be given credit for the authentic voice within the writing.
I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up book, Beyond the Body Farm, and taking a second look at crime scenes in future murder mystery reads- especially given how many authors have been to the Body Farm as part of their research. Now if only Sonika and I were writing a book…