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“I’ve gone places and seen things that most people don’t,” Barbara Butcher says. That’s a mighty understatement, given that she spent 22 years working as a death investigator for New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. As she gazes at the panoramic view from the windows of her high-rise apartment in Brooklyn, she muses, “I can look at any given building and say, ‘Oh, that was the guy that had the drug overdose’ or, ‘There’s the guy who got stabbed.’” But despite such horrors, she loved the job. “If you’re going to investigate death, New York City is the place to do it,” she says.

Butcher began as a medicolegal death investigator, eventually becoming director of the Forensic Science Training Program, logging countless hours at death scenes all over the city while “getting some justice for people and getting some answers for families,” she says. Butcher chronicles all of this heartbreak, drama, intrigue—and occasional humor—in her spellbinding memoir, What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator.

Read our starred review of ‘What the Dead Know’ by Barbara Butcher.

Butcher’s job, she explains, was not to solve murders but to investigate all of the circumstances surrounding deaths. While forensic pathologists determined the cause and manner of each death, Butcher scoured bodies and their surroundings for clues, such as signs of violence or disease. Having worked on “perhaps 5,500 cases,” she decided it was finally time to write about them during COVID-19 lockdown. “I remember all of them,” she says, including “naturals,” murders, accidents and suicides—which she says she always found disturbing. A particularly wrenching story involved an older Jewish woman who jumped off of her apartment’s roof, leaving no note or clues about her last act. “This woman had survived a concentration camp, the loss of home and country,” Butcher writes. “What could make her want to kill herself after all these years?” Throughout the book, Butcher’s descriptions are vivid yet respectful, reflecting the dizzying array of human experience.

What Butcher most loved about the job was getting to witness exactly how people lived. “Once someone’s dead, they can no longer hide anything from you,” she says. “So, being a nosy person, I get to go in there, investigate how they died and look at how they lived—go through their possessions for identification, medications, things like that.” She found herself in every kind of setting, from multimillion-dollar penthouses with priceless artwork to apartment bedrooms crammed with multiple bunk beds and hammocks strung between them. She has climbed into railroad tunnels to access caves where people had set up housekeeping. She has ventured to the Whitehouse Hotel, which was a “flophouse” with hundreds of cubicles that she recalls as “pieces of plywood with chicken wire on top, and that’s where people lived and died—literally a warehouse for humans.” Both during our call and in her book, she repeatedly bristles at the long-standing discrepancy in investigative resources. There will be few resources dedicated to, say, “a young Black woman who is a sex worker found murdered in the back alley of the Javits Center,” she says, while a “white girl from a wealthy family and murdered on Park Avenue will be on every headline and police blotter until it’s solved.” She adds, “I don’t think anyone should be lost to history, and perhaps that’s why I picked the cases that I did.”

“Every day is a disaster waiting to happen. Every little footstep outside my door is a potential serial killer.”

Once Butcher began working on her book, she found that writing about cases was decidedly easier than writing about herself. To deal with the many troubling situations that she encountered, she developed a steely detachment, which worked well for her career but caused repeated problems in her personal life. “I don’t do vulnerable,” she says. “That’s not my thing.” At her editor’s insistence, however, she added more intimate details into her manuscript, revealing, for instance, that she experienced depression and suicidal thoughts as teenager. Butcher also describes how her childhood love of science led her to become a physician assistant and then a hospital administrator, but she lost that position after she began to drink heavily. Her life was decidedly off the rails when she turned to Alcoholics Anonymous, whose career counseling service suggested that she should become either a poultry veterinarian, of all things, or a coroner. She scheduled an informational interview with Dr. Charles Hirsch, the legendary NYC Chief Medical Examiner, who hired her on the spot. “Alcoholism had landed me my dream job!” she writes.

“I’ve noticed these things in my life,” Butcher says, “where something bad happens, but out of it, ultimately, I’m steered in a better direction.” In fact, she even came to believe that her experiences with alcoholism helped hone her investigative skills. “We’re always hiding everything,” she says, referring to people with substance abuse disorders, “and so we know what’s hidden.”

Dr. Hirsch soon became a beloved mentor. “He was like a father, a brother, a friend. Just so much about him was so good,” Butcher says. His guidance was essential, especially since Butcher was only the second woman to take on her role in Manhattan, the first having left after only a month. She worked hard, as she writes, to fit in as “one of the girls who is one of the boys.” Over the years, Butcher was ribbed for showing up at death scenes in Talbots suits, but she prided herself on looking professional and found that it helped move investigations along. There were jokes, too, about her name, but she calls her surname “a great gift from my dad,” who was a policeman. She loved arriving at scenes and saying, “Butcher from the Medical Examiner. What d’you got?” and still chuckles about the time when an intern named Slaughter tagged along.

“When you’re surrounded by death and evil and murder and horror and tragedy, you accept it as the norm.”

This sense of humor also comes through in Butcher’s writing. What the Dead Know contains numerous one-liners such as, “You learn to think outside the box when the box contains a dead person.” Explaining the need for such dark humor, she says, “You have to deflect the pain and the sadness.”

Butcher was suddenly forced out of her job in 2015 when Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York and made his own appointments. “I miss it every single day,” she says. “I crave it. I long for it. It got to the point where I was thinking, ‘Well, if things go really, really bad, they’ll have to take me back—like during a nuclear attack or something.” She laughs at her desperation but adds, “Yeah, I miss that job. It was absolutely fantastic. Having said that, I will also say that it ruined me emotionally.”

Over the years, Butcher began to see calamity lurking at every turn. “The PTSD is god-awful,” she admits. “Years of therapy have mitigated it somewhat, but the thoughts are still there. Every day is a disaster waiting to happen. Every little footstep outside my door is a potential serial killer. When you’re surrounded by death and evil and murder and horror and tragedy, you accept it as the norm.” As for her own death, she speculates, “I’m fairly certain that I’ll be hit in the head by a stray bullet while trying to save a child from a river crossing. . . . It will be something dramatic, I’m quite certain.”

“If you have an amazingly cool job that you really love and enjoy, and you get to do a little good in the world—well, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Butcher sank into a deep depression after leaving the Medical Examiner’s Office, eventually requiring hospitalization and electroshock therapy, which she recounts in her book. “Ultimately, creativity is what saved me,” she says. “I took some piano lessons. I took dance lessons. I did things that were creative and fun and the opposite of death. I think that is part of why I wrote this book now. It’s a way to create something that may take me out of this feeling of being so totally bereft.”

Meanwhile, Butcher has two more books in the works. The first is a novel based on a story from her investigative life. “I have a theory of what really happened, so I have to fictionalize it,” she says. The other is a nonfiction exploration of the sorry state of death investigation in the United States. Butcher says she abhors the fact that about 60% of the country is served by elected coroners (as opposed to medical examiners), some of whom have no higher qualification than a high school degree. “That is why it is often easy to get away with murder,” she says, “if you are clever enough to make it look natural.”

“I think almost everyone is interested in death on some level,” Butcher says, “because it’s going to happen to everyone. Some might imagine that I have some insight into it, but I don’t, of course.” Regardless, she’s extremely proud of the work she’s done throughout her career. “If you have an amazingly cool job that you really love and enjoy, and you get to do a little good in the world—well, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Headshot of Barbara Butcher by Anthony Robert Grasso.

The New York City death investigator shares what it was like to have a career that both saved and ruined her life.

Have you ever seen a pregnant woman, perhaps with her arms weighed down by shopping bags, digging through her purse in front of a heavy door—and rushed forward to let her in using your own keycard? Or perhaps found a stray USB drive on the floor in your office building—and plugged it into your computer to see if you could figure out who to return it to?

If the answer to either or both questions is yes, you might have done someone a big favor . . . or you might have fallen prey to a penetration tester. Pen testers, as they’re often called, are daring and creative sorts hired by companies to identify security vulnerabilities, help repair weaknesses in their systems and recommend practices for avoiding issues in the future. That might involve attempting to access a vitally important database or evading security guards after sneaking into a presumably well-secured building.

A husband-and-wife pen tester team is at the center of Ruth Ware’s propulsive and emotionally complex new thriller, Zero Days. Gabe and Jack (short for Jacintha) revel in the complicated challenges and thrills that come with performing legally sanctioned digital and physical break-ins for their clients. 

“I wouldn’t trust myself to think, well, I can investigate this better than the police, whereas I think Jack genuinely does think that.”

Ware revels in it, too; the internationally bestselling author’s deep fascination with the subject is evident in the wealth of intriguing details and scenarios that make Zero Days, her eighth novel, a supremely suspenseful reading experience. In a call with BookPage from her home on the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband and two children, the author says that she got hooked on the idea of writing about pen testers while performing in-depth research for two of her previous books. 

“I had been researching apps and startups and tech companies for The Turn of the Key and One by One,” she explains. “I started listening to a lot of tech startup podcasts, and then from there I just gravitated toward the crime-y stabby edge. . . . I ended up on the darknet end of the internet, and that was where I first found out about pen testers and the extent of what they do.” 

She also listened to “hundreds of hours of podcasts, read blogs, memoirs, online articles and interviews and so on,” she says. “Usually my process of research is to dredge as widely as I can and absorb as much as I can, and then at the end maybe 5% of that makes it into the book.” This immersive process helps her “paint the picture of the person who would do this job, what’s their day-to-day life like, what are all the interesting little nuggets of weirdness that are going to make it into the book.”

Book jacket image for Zero Days by Ruth Ware

Jack’s keen ability to strategize and adapt under pressure is essential to her role—and, tragically, becomes necessary for her very survival. One night, while Jack is completing an assignment, Gabe is brutally murdered in their home. Not only does Jack lose her beloved life partner but the police consider her the prime suspect. Knowing that as long as they’re focusing on her they won’t search for the real killer, Jack decides to run for it: She’ll do her utmost to evade capture while figuring out who the real murderer is, and hopefully exact some vengeance along the way.

It’s a decision that makes complete sense for the character, of course, but what about the woman who created her? Ware insists with a laugh that “I wouldn’t make that decision in a million years. I would hunker down and hope to god that everything was sorted out. I wouldn’t trust myself to think, well, I can investigate this better than the police, whereas I think Jack genuinely does think that. And to an extent, she’s going to be right because of her unique skill set.”

The author also notes that Jack’s preternatural confidence in all manner of sticky situations is not something she possesses. “I am superaware of my own limitations,” she says. “I am an incredibly bad liar, which is a strange thing for a writer to say. . . . I’m very law-abiding. If I have the least consciousness of guilt, I go scarlet. That’s how I know I could never do that job. I could never walk into somewhere where I didn’t belong and act like I did.”

Jack, on the other hand, can and does, and when she takes to the streets of London—home to one of the most extensive CCTV surveillance systems in the world—that capability is crucial. But while she does fall on the more-prepared side of things, even in particularly dicey circumstances, she is also fallible, subject to misguided impulses, nagging injuries and uncertainty about what to do next.

“The temptation when you’re writing is always to go a little bit more Mission: Impossible, a little bit more Ethan Hunt, sliding down lift shafts and such, and the dramatic part of me would have loved to write some of those things,” Ware says. “But it was also really important to me to root it in the reality of what these jobs are, which is that, yes, it does take a certain type of personality, but actually you don’t have to be at the pinnacle of fitness or have a genius IQ. . . . You need to be very confident and very charming and able to push the envelope a little bit more than someone else might.”

Jack also struggles under the weight of immense shock and grief. Her deep sadness over the incomprehensible loss of Gabe comes in waves throughout Zero Days. It’s something she isn’t able to fully process, what with the police, and possibly the people who killed Gabe, close on her tail. 

“I think human beings are much lovelier and kinder than we give them credit for.”

That sorrowful refrain was crucial, Ware says, when it came to imbuing her time-is-running-out tale with a mournful yet determined heart. “Probably the biggest critique I have of Golden Age crime [fiction], and modern crime as well, is that sometimes the death of the person whose murder forms the mystery at the heart of the book can be treated like it’s just there to provide the puzzle or the impetus for the main character,” she says. 

“Thank god I’ve never really lost anyone in my life in the way that Jack loses Gabe, but I have been bereaved,” Ware adds, “and it is a seismic life event that you do not get over quickly; you’re not out there merrily detecting two weeks later. I wanted to be really careful to show the effects that grief has on a life and the ripples of consequence. . . . That’s true to how I think we are as people, we carry on putting one foot in front of the other because we have to and the world does go on . . . but every now and again you get hit by the reality of what happened.”

In terms of achieving practical verisimilitude in her story, Ware turned to a British reality TV show. “When I was researching, I spoke to a number of police officers,” she says, “and they all said the same thing: You should watch ‘Hunted.’” The action-packed goings-on in the show, which follows 14 people as they try to remain hidden for 28 days while a team of experts attempts to track them down, vividly illustrate the speed at which paranoia can build and how easily one can be found via elements of modern life such as online banking. 

Read our starred review of ‘Zero Days’ by Ruth Ware.

Another aspect of the show resonated with Ware on a deeper level. “The ones who win are usually successful because they’re likable people and they persuade people to do nice things for them,” she says. “And it just constantly amazes me how willing people are to go the extra mile for total strangers.” 

That revelation was, happily, in keeping with her own convictions. “I wanted to show both sides of that in the book. Jack’s a suspicious person; she has to be because of her job, and being on the run is only exacerbating that, “ Ware says. “But at the same time, I think human beings are much lovelier and kinder than we give them credit for.”

Even as we celebrate the good in humanity, though, Ware warns that we should not be cavalier about protecting ourselves online. After all, as Jack muses in Zero Days, there are most definitely bad actors lurking around the internet: “slippery, shadowy, forcing their way through the cracks in our online security and the doors we left open for them in our digital lives.” 

When I tell Ware that this poetically stated line is quite the chilling sentiment, she replies with a cheery “Thank you!” and adds, “I think once it comes out, if anyone takes any moral or lesson from this book, it should be to use a password manager.” That’s because, she explains, “reusing passwords is the equivalent of chaining all your door keys and car keys in the same bunch and then putting your address on it,” while a password manager generates and stores unique passwords for the myriad accounts we all juggle every day. “Literally every single person I interviewed said this,” the author says. And by the way, she laughs, “I was already using a password manager, so I felt very smug.”

” . . . every book is really a process of tricking myself into believing that nobody apart from me is going to read it.”

While she’s justifiably pleased with herself when it comes to online savvy, Ware is far from smug about her career thus far. Since her first book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was published in 2015, her books (more than 6 million in print, and counting) have been published in more than 40 languages worldwide. “I never expected to have this level of success. . . . There are moments when it’s brought home to me very forcibly; when I walk into a place full of readers who are there for me, it’s wonderful and terrifying.” But, she says, “when I’m actually at my desk writing, it’s something I try not to think about too much. . . . For me, every book is really a process of tricking myself into believing that nobody apart from me is going to read it.” 

Of course, that’s extremely unlikely to happen with Zero Days, which Ware says is a bit of a departure from her typical fare. “I don’t want to sit down and think, what would be the next Agatha Christie-ish Ruth Ware book that I could write?” she says. “It’s much more about finding something I want to say, and then hopefully at the end of that people will like it and my publishers will be able to market it. Which is exactly how this book came about, with me becoming mildly obsessed with the subject and my imagination running away with me, and then at the end of it thinking, oh gosh, I think I’ve written a thriller!” 

Indeed she has, one that will have readers rooting for Jack as they strategize survival and try to ferret out the truth right along with her. Presumably, they’ll also gather up tips that will come in handy should they one day become embroiled in a similar pickle—or even be inspired to become pen testers themselves. And all the while, Ware hopes, “I would like us to be a little bit less suspicious of each other as individuals, because I think the world has mostly good people, but a little bit more careful with our online security overall.” In other words: Get thee a password manager!

Photo of Ruth Ware by Gemma Day Photography.

The mega-popular thriller writer’s Zero Days finds the human heart within the high-stakes security industry.
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The Devil’s Playground

I am a huge fan of noir mystery novels set in the early heyday of Hollywood, back when the iconic hillside sign still read “Hollywoodland.” This love likely started via books by Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, and it carries through to the latest Tinseltown tome I have happened upon: The Devil’s Playground by Craig Russell. The year is 1927, and our leading lady is studio fixer Mary Rourke, who operates on the shady side of the law when necessary to cover up scandals that could threaten one (or more) of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars. Mary is summoned in the dead of night (a portentous phrase, to be sure) to the home of actress Norma Carlton, star of the supposedly “cursed” production The Devil’s Playground. Mary is stunned to find Norma dead, apparently by her own hand. This could tank the film, so a quick fix must be enacted to ensure that the public never suspects suicide. It all becomes more complicated post-fix, when the studio’s doctor discovers that Norma was strangled. Fast-forward to 1967, and journalist Paul Conway has been hired to find the one remaining copy of The Devil’s Playground, which is supposedly at a remote location in the California desert—if it even exists. If the search succeeds, Paul will be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. However, he will find more than he bargained for, including one of the most creative twist endings I have experienced in ages. The Devil’s Playground is definitely on my shortlist for best mystery of the year.

Dead Man’s Wake

You don’t have to wait long for the action to begin in Paul Doiron’s 14th novel featuring Maine Game Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch, Dead Man’s Wake. It starts with a literal bang in Act I, Scene 1: Mike and his fiancée, Stacey Stevens, are celebrating their engagement, but the festivities are interrupted by a speedboat crash on the adjacent lake. When they arrive at the scene, there is no wrecked boat in sight. But what is in sight is rather more gruesome: a recently severed human arm. The next day, the search team uncovers not one but two dead bodies, those of a local developer and his married girlfriend, and the whole situation begins to seem less like a tragic accident and more like a pair of premeditated murders. Homicide investigations don’t really fall under Mike’s purview, but as one of the local cops ruefully notes, Mike seems to insinuate himself into more such investigations than is usual for a game warden. There is no shortage of suspects: the cuckolded biker husband of the female victim; a pair of frat boys who had been racing around the lake; a female tourist who claimed to have witnessed the whole shebang but whose story seems less credible as the investigation wears on. Doiron packs in lots of twists and turns, and enough suspense to keep you reading well past bedtime.

The Guest Room

Tasha Sylva’s debut novel, The Guest Room, is a creepy psychodrama in which all the major characters have deeply disturbing weird streaks. Let’s start with Tess. Some time back, her sister, Rosie, was killed, and the murder was never solved. Still in a malaise of grief, Tess has taken to renting out Rosie’s room for Airbnb-style stays. Tess has a bad habit, though. When her guests are out, she gleefully rummages through their stuff. Tess’ latest lodger is Arran, who requests a one-month lease while looking for permanent lodgings. And naturally, the first time Arran leaves, Tess surreptitiously paws through his meager belongings and finds a diary. The diary reveals Arran to be a rather obsessive man—by many people’s definition, a stalker. He is affable, though, and quite handsome, which has not gone unnoticed by Tess. This brings us to Nalika, Tess’ beautiful friend. After Nalika and Arran meet, Tess reads the newest entry in his diary and realizes the latest object of his obsession might be Nalika. And maybe Tess is a bit jealous about that. Or more than a bit. The Guest Room is much more character-driven than plot-driven, but there are a couple of excellent plot surprises along the way. I will eagerly await Sylva’s next novel, and I bet you will too. 

A Stolen Child

A Stolen Child is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring American police detective Maggie D’arcy, who has relocated to Ireland and joined the Garda, the national police force of the island nation. Despite years of experience as a police detective in Long Island, Maggie is relegated to beat cop status upon passing the Garda entrance exam. But when a well-known fashion model is murdered and her toddler daughter is kidnapped, the force is stretched so thin that Maggie’s commanding officer decides to make use of her detecting talents. As Maggie takes charge of the two-pronged investigation into the murder/abduction, she quickly finds out that witnesses are few and far between and often reluctant to the point of intransigence. A Stolen Child is a nicely done, step-by-step police procedural, but it also offers much more than that: well-drawn characters; an insightful look at a rapidly gentrifying urban hub and its denizens; and off-duty relationships that lend notes of warts-and-all humanity to the players.


Craig Russell’s suspenseful look at the dark side of Old Hollywood blows our mystery columnist away, plus two perfect police procedurals and a deeply creepy debut thriller.

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