18 Feb 2008
This is a quickie review for a quickie book. Bill Bass, the man who revolutionized forensics by examining the corruption of the flesh with scientific exactitude, follows up his memoir “Death’s Acre” with “Beyond the Body Farm”, a collection of stories of the cases he’s worked on.
With the help of writer Jon Jefferson, Bass is an avuncular storyteller, exhibiting a pleasure in his work that readers who are uncomfortable with the thought of spending one’s life hanging around the dead might find offensive. Of course, one should have a means of protection, a detachment that is vital when dealing with someone so elemental as witnessing for the dead.
Take, for instance, this scene that greeted the police at the site of an explosion at an illegal fireworks factory. Out in rural Tennessee, the owner of Webb’s Bait Farm had decided to run his second business in the barn next to his house. Eleven members of his family had been working inside when a spark, probably from a drill used to mix a slurry of explosive material, caused a blast that leveled the building and sent bodies flying. Those of sensitive disposition may wish to avoid the next paragraph.
Body number 11 was perhaps the most bizarre of all. The explosion hurled him the farthest — nearly a hundred yards, skipping across the pasture and into the woods. As he entered the tree line, he snapped a branch on a pine sapling. The jagged end of the branch pierced his abdomen and snagged a loop of his small intestine, and as the body continued into the woods, the intestines unspooled like a fishing line. Once he reached the end of the line, so to speak, he was yanked to a stop. We found him there — that is to say, we found his torso — at the end of twenty feet of intestine, still stretched tight as a rope.
Over 16 chapters, Bass and Jefferson recount 13 cases, some of which were solved or advanced due to research performed at the Body Farm. There’s the case of the body found in the burnt-out car, whose time of death was determined by the age of the maggots breeding on him. There was the assistant DA, found trussed and stabbed inside his home, whose time of death helped convict the man who did it.
The high point of the book was a guest appearance by The Big Bopper, who died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and Richard Valens. The rumored presence of a gun on board the plane, and the possibility of it going off and killing the pilot, led the family to request an exhumation. The Bopper’s son, who was born after the singer’s death, was present, and the tale acquires a thin sheen of fiction as he, surprisingly to all, finds a bit of closure with his tragically absent father, due in a large part to very, very good embalming.
True crime finds will probably treat “Beyond the Body Farm” like a box of chocolates, gobbled quickly and mostly forgotten — apart from the Bopper’s tale and that poor man’s intestines — but it also serves as a tonic against the “CSI effect”. Solving mysteries in real life takes money, time, human effort, and is never interrupted by commercials. And in some of the cases, we’re still left with questions.