Book Review cover

Argh, you left your lunch on the counter at home yesterday.

No problem; you just bought something nearby and you didn’t starve. But think about all the things you’ve ever left behind: paperwork, eyeglasses, coats, and phone. Hair, derma flakes, fibers, and fingerprints. And as you’ll see in “The Nature of Life and Death” by Patricia Wiltshire, what you take with you can be equally important.

Like all good memoirs, it begins like this: she never started out to solve crimes.

No, Patricia Wiltshire was a researcher long before she began working with policemen in the U.K. She was “an ‘environmental archeologist’” then, studying soils and spores from ancient sites so when asked by detectives to confirm, ecologically, where a body might’ve been dumped, doing so was an easy next step.

Her job description today is so rare that you’ve likely never heard of it: Wiltshire is a palynologist, “one who studies pollen and other palynomorphs” and the microscopic detritus of “the natural world.” By teasing grains of pollen and soil from clothing, shoes, and cars, and then peering at them through microscopes, Wiltshire can picture where a body was dumped, and when. She can confirm a killer by fungi left on a carpet. She can envision where a crime took place or a murder occurred because, to her, the soil in one corner of a garden is vastly different than it is in the other corner of the same garden, and every corpse has a story to tell.

Her fascination with her work started early: Wiltshire was born in a small Welsh mining village and, because of a kitchen accident in which she was horribly burned, she was considered a “delicate” child and was sent to live with “three elderly people,” relatives with whom she spent two years. They were loving, but stern, and if Wiltshire needed punishment, she was sent to clip grass by hand. For a curious child with a keen eye, being at ground-level was hardly punishment.

“Seven decades later,” she says, “I’m fascinated still.”

Science geeks unite! Really, that’s the only thing you can do when a book like “The Nature of Life and Death” hits stores. You’ve just got to have it.

You won’t be the only one.

Beginning with a scenario familiar to mystery-thriller fans, author Patricia Whitshire takes readers on a journey that crawls through the dirt and peers into a microscope to see things we blithely miss every day. It might leave you a little squirmy – you’re not as clean as you think you are – but you’ll also marvel at Whitshire’s processes and the facts she shares about what we walk on, sit on, and trod past. Don’t be surprised if you’re left hyperaware of your actions. Don’t be surprised if you’re charmed at the biographical parts.

This is a deep book, in some respects, but it’s also engaging and delightfully nerdy. No true crime fan should be without it. Science lovers will relish it. “The Nature of Life and Death” should not be left behind.

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