The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace

Putnam. Sept. 2019. 304p. ISBN 9780525542216. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780525542247. SCI
Forensic ecologist Wiltshire writes a fascinating book about a practical yet unusual application of botanical science—investigating the causes of unnatural deaths, such as murders. The narrative shifts between autobiographical passages about Wiltshire’s personal life and more scientific descriptions of cases she worked on throughout her long career. Wiltshire, a trained botanist with a specialty in palynology, the study of pollen, uses her expertise to identify how and when individuals died to ascertain the truth of what suspects tell investigators about sequences of events and locations and to find resolution for cases that might otherwise be difficult to solve. Besides pollen, the author considers the hidden world of spores, fungi, and microbes. Because of the descriptions of human remains (and the featuring of a body farm), the book is reminiscent at times of Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and also the television show Bones. It’s strongest when Wiltshire sticks to science; the more intimate passages add an element of interest but pale in comparison to descriptions of case work and botanical topics.
VERDICT Fascinating for readers who enjoy science, including ecology and botany, and who aren’t too squeamish.

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