Edward M. Marten, The Doctor Looks at Murder (Blue Ribbon Books, 1940)
[originally posted 26Nov2001]
What a delicious little book this is. In 1940 it was no doubt offered in the same way books of “medical curiosities” were offered in the seventies (“absolutely no one under sixteen ears of age may order this book!”), and to his credit, Marten is more than willing to play the role, tossing off case study after case study in what would then have been considered lurid detail. It would barely rate a PG today, but that doesn’t make it any less fun when considered in the time frame of its release.
There’s more to this book than luridity, though. Marten’s stated goal with the book was to extinguish the notoriously corrupt (in his opinion) American coroner system and get it completely replaced with the Medical Examiner system (at the time of the book’s publishing, only three American municipalities had MEs; Marten was the assistant chief ME of New York City), and in this role he is a font of useful, albeit trivial for those of us not in the medical profession, information on everything from the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner (required reading for all followers of TV police dramas) to the various marks made by a bullet entering flesh at various angles and distances. The illustrations, both photographic and line-drawing, never go outside the boundaries of taste, either, for his time or ours.
One last note: it’s amusing to read pre-1964 texts in light of twenty-first-century political correctness and wonder where we went so horribly wrong. When Marten notes that a particular murder was committed by an Italian, he was saying that this particular murder was committed by an Italian, not that Italians are predisposed to murder. Yet somehow, in the past forty years, we got to the point where we read that statement and make that interpretation. (And I can’t imagine what the PC police would have to say about Marten’s assessment, based on the records of his office, that blacks are more likely to use straight razors in crimes than whites are…)
A fine book any way you, no pun intended, slice it. Even though it’s not enough of a groundbreaking marvel to warrant four or more stars, it’s definitely one of my favorites of the year. *** ½