Researching death and the dead…

Valerie Laws

Several of the people in this room are dead. Their heads are shaved, their mouths open. Some have missing teeth, the lip collapsing into the gaping mouth, the chin bristles erect. Drained of blood, the flesh shows its true colours – cream, shell pink, beige, mauve, mushroom, taupe, yellow. A boy is slicing into an old man’s scrotum, his face intent, while a girl scrapes at the abdomen of a woman of ninety, the turned-back skin flap backed with creamy, fat-like, wet sheepskin. 

The cadavers lie on steel tables, with lids opened, like metal sarcophagi, while brightly coloured youngsters cluster round them with their scalpels. The bodies are dignified, massive and beautiful in an austere way, their muscular thighs, solid genitals, jutting chins, unselfconscious as the living now cannot be, as the young medical students gradually reveal the intricate beauty within them.

©Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photo

I am Writer in Residence at this anatomy department, and at the attached pathology museum full of human specimens, and at a brain institute, and I’m privileged to be here among the dead and those who learn from their ‘silent teachers’. 

I, and my artist colleague, lead workshops in drawing and writing in the dissection rooms, with the dead as subjects. At the end of the sessions, wearing purple nitrile surgical gloves, we help to put away the bodies and parts of bodies. A pair of thighs lie on a table, the sawn-off ends showing a button of bone, small discs of femur. A head in a steel bowl looks through the parted legs. A disembodied face lies on another table, peeled from its skull, looking more expressive than before: wise and innocent at once. It’s like a deflating balloon, its attached windpipe like the string. 
I’m learning about the science of death. I am funded to learn, to write, to interpret neuroscience and pathology for the public, to understand for myself what death is, as far as I can. 

I am a poet, playwright, but a crime novelist, too, and what I learn enters all of my work. I am given tours round slices of brain, shown the signs of dementia which could be already eroding our own brains long before the outward signs appear if we but knew it. 

I study the floating foetuses in the museum’s big jars, babies with bizarre syndromes, two heads, split spines, Cyclops eye, mermaid tail-blades – beautiful babies who couldn’t live once born. This is an incredible journey for me, and several books result from several years of in-depth research, which itself follow personal experience – being present at the deaths of loved ones. 

Death is the great mystery, even more now than in Victorian times, it’s now shameful, a failure of medicine, hidden away, but inevitable and we are fascinated by it. It might seem gruesome, but being among the real dead, I feel respect, affection, empathy. They are just people, like me, like you. But like you, I wrestle with the meaning of death, and in the crime fiction I read and write, with murder, the ultimate crime. 

There are different kinds of evil. Another side to the respectful students and professors of the anatomy department, and those who gave their bodies so that we can have surgery in order to live, is the suffering of the living, and that is much more gruesome in my view.

I spent months in hospital with multiple fractures, large steel pins like six-inch nails sticking out of my bones, bolted to bars, an arm, a leg, both feet smashed. I’m still disabled decades on from the crash. I know how it feels when thirteen of your bones shatter, I know what being helpless in hospital is like, and how the helplessness of the cared-for can bring out kindness, empathy, in the carers – and how it can also bring out sadism, cruelty, or cold indifference. 

Doctors, surgeons, well-paid, respected: we find ourselves at their mercy when our lives are smashed up or in the balance. Sometimes they hurt us, and don’t seem to care if they do – what if a doctor was a clever sadist, who enjoyed hurting patients with broken bones, able to keep on doing it, be paid for it, be venerated for it? And what happens when someone strikes back at him, and others? 

And so I’ve created the sadistic surgeon in my second crime novel (and twelfth book) THE OPERATOR, followed by a series of murders of surgeons left mutilated to mimic the operations they perform on others. The first book, THE ROTTING SPOT, focused on skull-collecting. I used to collect skulls, hack off dead heads of roadkill or dead beached birds, rot them, boil them in bleach. Some of them are looking at me now – a horse, a deer, a badger… A gruesome hobby some would say, yet to me bones are beautiful, my fascination with anatomy intensified by my own broken bones. And no creatures were harmed… 

Pain is more gruesome than death. We will all die, we will all know pain, we fear loss of autonomy or power over our own lives, so we read (and write) on, attempting to understand, enjoying the ‘safe danger’ of crime or horror fiction.

The Operator 
(Bruce and Bennett Crime Thiller 2)

Now, this WILL hurt…’ Someone’s operating
on surgeons, with fatal and bizarre results.

A sadistic orthopaedic surgeon is bizarrely killed. Soon it appears
someone’s giving doctors a taste of their own medicine – murdering surgeons and
mutilating the bodies to mimic the operations they perform. This dark but witty
and erotic action-packed thriller sees Erica Bruce, small but fierce alternative
health therapist and journalist, cross swords and scalpels again with tall,
dark, athletic DI Will Bennett, full-on sceptic. 

‘Gripping from the very first scene.’ Ann Cleeves,
award-winning author of  TV’s ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’ novels.
‘Intelligent, dark and shot through with
sly comedy, Valerie Laws is one of those writers who consistently satisfies.’
Alex Marwood, best-selling author of
Wicked Girls
Available in paperback Feb 2014 from Red Squirrel Crime.
Extract from THE OPERATOR:
‘He picked up one of the delicate, gleaming metal
instruments that lay neatly ranged beside him, and began to work the end of one
of the thin steel spikes that he had previously screwed into the skin, flesh
and damaged bone of the boy’s leg, one of many, each one creating a fresh
wound, each one fixed to metal rings bolted together, so that he could adjust
the tension between them in three planes, twisting, shearing, pulling. The
youth’s face was now grey-green, and his eyelids fluttered as if he was about to
pass out, strange moans burst from his mouth. But he tried to hold them back.
To please the man, to impress him. And the mother sat watching, unable to help,
unable to stop the torment, her eyes like her son’s, wide with pain. Neither of
them resisted, neither complained, they were docile, pathetic, accepting his
authority. This was better than punching and kicking, the cheap thrills of easy
screams and begging. Better by far the small, humiliated sounds forced out of
those who strove not to express their pain out of respect for him.’

3 thoughts on “Researching death and the dead…

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