A subtly creepy collection of stories culled from the experiences
of a leading forensic anthropologist. Manhein describes her role as
an expert witness as the laying out of her analysis to the jury
without a lot of unexplained scientific jargon - the exact
technique she employs in this account. While one of her goals seems
to be teaching the public about the field of forensic anthropology,
she never loses sight of her main intention, the spinning of a good
story. The result is a rare, effective blend of entertainment and
education. As we follow Manhein into the Louisiana bayou, where she
digs up the levee to claim a five-year-old corpse, into industrial
fires where victims bodies lie unrecovered, into cemeteries both
old, newly discovered, and improvised, under houses, and into the
forest to examine the bones of potentially mistreated horses, we
learn about identifying bodies through dental X-rays, bone
composition, and facial reconstruction. It is the same combination
of the desire to solve puzzles and a fascination with death that
led Manhein into her field and which also compels the reader to
move quickly from one story to the next. Whether she is describing
a human skull being pulled up in a fishing net or her nervousness
at testifying in court, she maintains a grounded eye for detail and
a compassionately detached style which renders the subject matter
interesting rather than gruesome. While many of Manhein's cases
have attracted media attention, most notably the exhumation of the
killer of Huey Long, the book primarily focuses on the much less
glamorous side of the field - the identification of drowning
victims sometimes years after their deaths, or the discovery that
those bones in the yard belonged to the previous owner's pet dog.
Despite the morbid nature of her work, she loves what she does and
communicates that enthusiasm in her absorbing harrative. (Kirkus
"On the first day of the search, I failed to find the body." So
writes forensic anthropologist and bioarchaeologist Mary H. Manhein
-- or "the bone lady" as law enforcement personnel call her. In
this, one of dozens of stories recollected in her powerful memoir,
Manhein and the state police eventually unearth a black plastic bag
buried in the banks of the Mississippi River containing the body of
a man who has been missing for five years. After the painstaking
process of examining the remains, confirming the victim's identity,
and preparing a formal report for the police, Manhein testifies for
the prosecution at the murder trial. The defendant is convicted
(due in no small part to Manhein), and the bone lady has helped
solve yet another mystery.
As director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer
Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at Louisiana State
University, Manhein unravels mysteries of life and death every day.
In The Bone Lady, she shares, with the compassion and humor of a
born storyteller, many fascinating cases that include the science
underlying her analyses as well as the human stories behind the
Manhein, an expert on the human skeleton, assists law
enforcement by providing profiles of remains that narrow the
identification process when the traditional means used by medical
examiners or coroners to conduct autopsies are no longer applicable
-- simply put, when bones are all that are left to tell the story.
She assesses age, sex, race, height, signs of trauma, and time
since death, and creates clay facial reconstructions.
The case studies Manhein includes in The Bone Lady highlight the
diversity of the field of forensic anthropology. She presents some
ofher more lighthearted cases, such as that instigated by the
suburban man who discovers a box of bones buried in his backyard
labeled "Patsy Lou Bates -- Sis." A coroner, police investigators,
and swarms of media are present when Manhein identifies Patsy Lou
as a dearly departed family pet. One of her most chilling cases
concerns a husband who murdered his wife, buried her in their yard,
planted a rose garden over her grave, and continued to garden there
for eight years until his deed was discovered. Manhein's
involvement in historic cases includes her participation in the
exhumation of Dr. Carl Weiss, the alleged assassin of Huey P.
Although Manhein enjoys solving high-profile cases, her personal
crusade is identifying the John and Jane Does who wait in her lab.
Manhein's own words perfectly characterize her mission:
"Identifying a victim can bring peace of mind to the family and can
help them to go on with their lives. Sometimes, peace of mind is
the only gift that I can give."
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