BOOK REVIEW: Author, podcaster and true crime fanatic Meshel Laurie doesn’t fail with her stated aim to give victims “a voice through forensics” in her latest book, CSI Told You Lies, writes Irfan Yusuf.
With Meshel Laurie, the question isn’t what she’s done with her life. The question is what hasn’t she done.
She’s been a broadcaster, TV and radio host, podcaster, comedian and author of books on Buddhism. Her latest book turns our attention to matters less gentle than the Indian sage, though no less spiritual.
Death is an inherently spiritual process. I believe it involves freeing of the soul from the limitations of its host body. What happens afterwards is best left to theologians and philosophers.
Violent death, the brutal and sometimes unintended wrestling of soul body, is something all civilised societies condemn. Causing violent death in peacetime is always prima facie a crime worthy of investigation and some form of prosecution.
When we think of prosecuting murder, we think of the deceased victim, the victims left behind, the accused and the police. But there is one category of persons that we often ignore. They are the people who play a key role in helping convict those who should be convicted, thus hopefully bringing some sense of closure to the victims.
They are the forensic pathologists who regularly carry out autopsies in the Coroners’ Courts in every Australian state and territory. Laurie describes them as “crucial links in the chain who are so vital in giving the dead a voice in the judicial system”.
Their work is so behind the scenes that often families of the deceased don’t know exactly who conducted the post mortem, a process that “once known, cannot be unknown. For many junior pathologists, conducting a post mortem can throw you “into an existential crisis”. Laurie has humanised the emotional responses of not just the victims but also the pathologists which is quite an extraordinary feat.
The forensic teams Laurie speaks to are all from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM), a world-class facility with humble beginnings that now trains forensic medical practitioners from across the world.
She sits with them the way the student sits at the feet of a teacher in a traditional setting. This is the humility shown by students of philosophy and religion which I’ve seen in the circles of whirling dervish masters in Pakistan as well as students of Confucian masters teaching in ancient temples in southern Taiwan. Laurie shows not just a curiosity to learn but also a recognition of and respect for the masters of these forensic arts.
At the same time, Laurie doesn’t see her book as a work of crime porn. She seeks permission from each deceased’s loved ones to tell the story they believe the deceased would like to be remembered. This is so unlike the style of mainstream tabloid media who focus on juicy tit-bits. Laurie presents the victims and their families as real people with real feelings and real lives and real dreams cut short.
Among the victims she has covered are young women who have been victims of murder in recent years – comedian Eurydice Dixon, in 2018, and international student Aya Maasarwe, who was killed in 2019. Also mentioned are the famous cases of Lindy Chamberlain as well as the often-nameless victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami where one of Laurie’s subjects worked to identify bodies in Phuket. This really is a phenomenal piece of work. After finishing the book, I feel I’ve learned more about the criminal justice process than I could have learned at law school.