June 20, 2023

What the Dead Know

By Barbara Butcher
Review by
Writing in a fast-paced and precise style, Barbara Butcher shares a treasure trove of stories from her 22 years as a death investigator in New York City.
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Early on in her job, Barbara Butcher got an invaluable piece of advice from a colleague: “When you leave here each day, surround yourself with things of beauty. Enjoy nature and art and food and music and love. Just do it, and don’t skip a day.” Those words turned out to be crucial, lifesaving wisdom for Butcher, who spent 22 years working at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. It was her job to investigate the circumstances surrounding unexpected deaths, carefully examining the bodies and their surroundings for clues to determine if it was an accident, a suicide, a death by natural causes—or a murder. Although she calls it “the best career I could ever imagine,” the emotional toll was painful—often excruciating—as she explains in her colorful, compelling memoir, What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator.

Barbara Butcher shares fond and chilling memories from the career that both saved and ruined her life.

Butcher’s life was almost upended by depression and alcohol addiction. Despite rising in the ranks as a physician assistant and a hospital administrator, she was on an extreme crash course to destruction when she landed in Alcoholics Anonymous. By chance, after she got sober, she was hired as a medicolegal death investigator. Butcher was only the second woman to hold the job; the first had quit after only a month.

Writing in a fast-paced, no-nonsense, sometimes funny and always precise style, Butcher shares a treasure trove of life and death stories that touch on racism, wealth, poverty, prejudice, misogyny, justice and injustice. In many ways, it’s the ultimate behind-the-scenes tour of the Big Apple from the 1990s through 2015, including the 9/11 attacks. Butcher guides readers through mansions, flophouses, back alleys, squatters’ buildings, train tunnels and more while taking note of the immense breadth of humanity, both living and dead.

Visceral, impassioned and hard to put down, What the Dead Know is a lively account of an unimaginable career.

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What the Dead Know

What the Dead Know

By Barbara Butcher
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781982179380

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