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The Golden Age Autopsy Transcript

Caroline: Golden age detective fiction has a tendency to skip over the corpse. Important as it is to the story, one of the defining features of crime fiction from that period between the first and second world wars is its lack of description of the consequences of murder. Characters react to the victim’s death, of course, but that detailed mortuary scene that we’re so familiar with from modern police procedurals is generally absent. And that’s what a lot of people like about the books from this time — they’re not full of talk about gore and wounds and stomach contents and all of that kind of thing.

But even in 1920, detectives needed to know the details of how the deed was done in order to investigate properly. Bodies were, of course, examined by experts to answer questions like who, when, how and, ultimately, why, even if that process was not included as a major feature of the fiction. And as it happens, the science involved was going through its own “golden age” at the same time as the explosion in the popularity of this style of crime fiction — a lot of developments with how bodies were handled and investigated happened in a short space of time. This all got me wondering: what did an autopsy look like during the golden age of detective fiction, and how has it changed since?


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


To find out more about the golden age autopsy, I’m calling on an expert of my own. Carla Valentine is a qualified Anatomical Pathology Technologist and the technical curator at Bart’s Pathology Museum in London, as well as a huge Agatha Christie fan and the author of a book titled Murder Isn’t Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie. She has appeared on the show before, back in December 2021, when we talked more generally about Christie’s use of forensics, and I’m delighted to have her back now to talk about autopsies in particular.

Caroline: So Carla, welcome back to Shedunnit.

Carla: Thank you for having me again, Caroline.

Caroline: And today we’re going to talk about all things autopsy, both now and how it gets used in golden age detective fiction, but I think it would probably be a good idea if we start at the beginning with what is an autopsy?

Carla: Well, I’m glad you asked me this, Caroline, because I’m going to bore you with some terminology here. The word autopsy, it comes from the Greek originally. So ‘auto-‘, you know, oneself, the self. It’s like in an autobiography. And ‘-opsis’ or ‘-opsy’ is to see. Like a biopsy, ‘take a look’. So really it just means sort of take a look at oneself and I think it’s a really good way to describe the sort of examination that we have after we die.

Now, when we do an autopsy on an animal, for example, we would call that a necropsy because it’s not looking at ourselves. So that’s really what an autopsy means. It means to sort of look. Look at yourself. It doesn’t really talk about the after death part, like the word postmortem or postmortem examination does.

But honestly, the terms are interchangeable and depending how much time you’ve got, you know, for syllables and things like that, you might say a PM, you might say a post, you might say an autopsy. And Agatha Christie, for example, she was au fait with all of those terms. She uses them all in the books, so she clearly knew that they were all the same thing.

And what we’re talking about is an examination of a human body after they have died.

Caroline: And in what circumstances would such a thing happen? Does it happen routinely or is it only in circumstances where there’s suspicion that there’s been foul play?

Carla: Well, this is obviously something that has changed over time and I think, you know, one of the interesting indicators of that is actually the fact that when I was working as an anatomical pathology technologist, so assistant to the pathologist, and I carried out autopsies, we were working to a system that was sort of based on half a coronial system in the UK. And then we would look into forensic autopsies separately, so anything forensic means to do with the law.

So that would be something that we know is a crime. And that’s actually changed. Over the last few years, there’s a new system that’s been rolled out in the UK, which is effective really from this month, April 2023, which is a medical examiner system. And I don’t wanna get too bogged down in the terminology of the sort of medical examiner system and the coronial system because they mean different things in the UK to what they do in the US and it can be quite confusing.

But I think what’s just important to know is that a routine autopsy in Agatha Christie’s time, for example, would’ve been very much more down to what the doctor believed was necessary. So, and we’ll see this over and over in Christie’s examinations. If the doctor thinks that the person has died of natural causes and the person’s been ill for a good long while, they will say, ‘Oh, there’s no need to bother the family with that. I wouldn’t do something like that. No autopsy.’

In the UK, what we’ve really been working to over the last sort of 10-20 years is that if you haven’t seen a doctor within two weeks of your death and the doctor isn’t sure that it is, you know, a natural cause of death, then you will have a coronial autopsy, which is a routine.

But we are going to talk about forensic autopsies, which are very specific, aren’t they, I guess to to crime fiction? Because we’re talking about ones where we know that a murder has occurred and with a forensic autopsy you’re looking for several things really.

You are looking for obviously the cause of death. Any sort of trauma that might have been inflicted before death around the time of death or possibly postmortem, which we might see for different reasons. We’re looking for any evidence of sexual assault. A lot of the time looking for evidence of where the person was murdered or the time that they were murdered, which I think is probably one of the things that we get in crime fiction more than anything, isn’t it? It’s trying to narrow down that time of death.

Caroline: Yes. So let’s, let’s start there. At the time when Agatha Christie and other detective novelists were writing, how would you go about trying to establish that time of death? Which is obviously going to be hugely important for how the detective then takes the investigation forward.

Carla: I suppose an autopsy back in Agatha Christie’s time compared to now would be looking at very much the same thing. We’re talking about a hundred years ago. We would be looking at what we would really call the sort of trifecta of postmortem artefact, which are the various mortises, so you’ve got, everyone I think is familiar with rigor mortis, the body’s stiffening. Algor mortis is the body cooling, and then livor mortis, L I V O R, is the sort of the blood settling in the body. And those things are ascertained by looking really, you know, on a sort of gross examination as we would say.

So, that hasn’t really changed, I don’t think. One of the main things that pathologists would do or police surgeons would do at a crime scene or at an autopsy would be to check the pattern of the livor mortis, which is where the blood has settled, see whether it’s fixed or not.

Check sort of what the level of cooling is, and then also check what the level of rigor mortis or rigidity is of the body. And all of those things are time sensitive in a way and would give the pathologist as sort of an idea of when the time of death might have occurred. So we can always look into those sort of separately.

And that would be the main way and still really is how we would try to estimate time of death. Now, whether or not we can pinpoint that to, you know, between 10:00 and 12:00 AM or you know, eight hours this side, eight hours that side is definitely something that’s up for discussion.

Caroline: Yes. I think that’s something we’re really used to from contemporary portrayals of this, aren’t we on television and so on, people saying very confidently that somebody must have died within this 19 minute window. Is that actually remotely realistic?

Carla: Not really, no. I mean, a friend of mine, a US pathologist often says the only way that I’m going to know what time you died is if you got shot through the watch.

You know, and this is actually something that we’ve even seen in a lot of crime fiction, like Agatha Christie for example, The Murder at the Vicarage. Topple the clock over, make it look as though that was the time of death. You know, you can’t really pinpoint it that accurately. And I think what’s interesting with many things, really, is the more we know about this process, so the more we know about rigor mortis, the more we know about digestive of gastric contents for example which we can also come to, the more we know that there are more variables because we can look into it even deeper than they would have in Agatha Christie’s time. So, actually, it makes the estimation broader. It doesn’t narrow it at all. It makes you err even more on the side of caution.

But I think Agatha Christie herself knew that. There were certain books where having this narrow window of time of death is really important, such as The Murder at the Vicarage or The Body in the Library, where the doctor may be able to say, look, it’s been within two or three hours. But in earlier stories, Agatha does make a point of saying herself that it’s not possible to do that, and the doctor would only really err on the side of caution and say maybe before 8pm and after 8am, or something like that.

So she was aware of it, but she just used it, you know, with a bit of artistic license when she really needed to push a story through.

Caroline: You mentioned there about gastric contents which I feel like is something that’s quite a feature of detective fiction. This idea that so-and-so ate their last meal, and based on that, the pathologists are able to say this is when they died. Is that a technique that is still respected?

Carla: It’s not at all really now. I think the reason being that things like digestion are very much subject to how you are feeling, you know, in yourself. And if you’ve been murdered and you are suddenly, you know, well…during the process of you being attacked or murdered and you’re flooded with adrenaline and things like that, one of the things that’s going to stop is your digestion because, you know, your body’s trying to send various different chemicals and hormones to other places like the fight or flight response for example. So we all know what it’s like when you’re nervous and you try and eat, but you can’t because you get butterflies in your tummy. And it’s the same sort of thing. And the more we know actually about how we digest, the more we know it’s just not a process that begins with you eating your food and then sort of has a very set time where it goes through the intestines and it is digested. However, at the time that Agatha Christie did mention it several times, you know, Inspector Japp, for example, talks about it a lot in some of the Poirots. It was used as a sort of way to estimate time of death. So she wasn’t wrong and she was definitely using what we would call the new science of the time. It’s just that now we know enough to say actually it’s fairly redundant.

Caroline: Thinking about the other things that a pathologist might contribute as well as time of death, one thing that really springs to mind is actually the cause of death. Often in detective fiction, it starts out with a bit of indecision about was this even murder or was this suicide? And then an autopsy is able to help with that, or the detective looks to that. How has that process changed if at all?

Carla: I find it really interesting actually that things that I take for granted as being standard autopsy protocol now are mentioned as sort of new techniques in things like Agatha Christie’s works because obviously the golden era of the discoveries of forensic science was sort of happening at the same time as she was writing, at the same time as other golden era detectives.

So one example might be if somebody was strangled and then they were posed hanged. There was a time when people might take that for granted. Now it’s a really classic artefact to take a look at autopsy at the mark that is left by whatever has been used to strangle the body first to see if it, you know, the strangling itself was created with the same thing that hanged the person. Is it? Cause it might not be. The wound and the rope may not match, but also to check the direction it goes in. Because if you strangle somebody and you’re stuck behind them, there’s going to be a horizontal ligature mark around your neck. Whereas if you hang yourself, that ligature mark is going to go upwards to a point at the back of your neck. These seem like really basic things to us now, but, you know, in the early days of forensic detection, that sort of thing was a novelty, like to discover something like that and realise, oh no, this person didn’t hang themselves. This mark and this sort of mode of death, they don’t match. It is a really good example, I guess, of how a forensic pathologist can take a look at a body and go, actually, no, the narrative that’s been left here is not what I am reading on this corpse or on this cadaver. I’m reading a different story entirely.

Caroline: Which is really fascinating and I feel like novelists who understand this system use that really well to their advantage. You know, it can be such a good piece of narrative misdirection, can’t it? To kind of start off a novel, assuming one thing, and then actually have the pathologist report come back in and say, no, no, you’re completely wrong, you’ve got to look at this completely the other way.

Carla: Absolutely. And I think one of my favourite misdirects is not even probably the way a body was murdered. I think it’s the time shift often, you know, with the use of the murder itself and then the later discovered autopsy artefacts and, you know, things around the crime scene, we can see that perhaps a death didn’t occur at the time that it was supposed to, or the identity misdirect as well, which really helps with a time shift, you know, and I obviously don’t wanna go into that too much because it’s such a wonderful way to use forensic knowledge.

And you do have to have good knowledge to then be able to use it and apply it to a story to really make it work. And I think that is what so impressed me about Christie. When I was so young and I’d started to read her work and I was really interested in forensics and pathology and medicine. That I think was what really drew me to it. It was that to find that it was a really factual use as well. And it was, you know, it was credible and it was done well.

After the break: identifying bodies before DNA

Caroline: Identity I think is a really interesting one because quite a common trope in golden age detective fiction is the unknown victim where someone discovers a body and it’s not a close family member, and they aren’t able to immediately say who it is. Thinking, particularly say of a novel like 4.50 from Paddington, where the actual murder is seen sort of in silhouette.

Nobody knows who the victim is, and then a body is found of a woman that nobody knows, and so actually trying to find out who she is or who the person is, presumably that was a process that looked very, very different a hundred years ago than how it looks now.

Carla: I think it did. I think in some ways it can depend. I mean, in that particular example, what I think is interesting is that the clothing of the victim was sort of looked at. From my understanding is that she was fairly decomposed by that time. Because she had not been discovered for a while. So the clothing was looked at and the artefacts in the sort of in the handbag were looked at to maybe ascertain an even a nationality as well as an identity.

And that is still something that is done today and even, interestingly there are people out there who are experts in forensic clothing identification. You know, particularly if a body’s been buried and then dug up, and the clothing needs to be analysed by somebody who’s an expert.

So that’s certainly a way that you can narrow down the field because people think, oh, well we do DNA analysis now, so there’s absolutely no reason for all of that. But of course you have to have something to compare a DNA analysis to. You can’t really just, you know, take a DNA sample and I mean, we have a lot of data banks and things like that, but it’s expensive.

And the easiest thing is actually to get a sort of possible identification, even if it’s, you know, narrowing it down to two or three victims, which happens in a lot of books such as The Body in the Library. And then go from there with some of the more obvious things. And I think one of the more obvious things and the things that’s really overlooked was used then and is used now is odontology, actually. It’s the exam examination of the teeth, because in The Body in the Library, Miss Marple effectively sort of uses the teeth in a way to kind of identify the body in a very, very broad sort of, you know, she observed the teeth of one body. She observed the teeth of another, she made some conclusions, and that is what an odontologist does, and it’s a much more reliable way to, you know, match an unknown deceased to a possible known identity, and it’s done very, very quickly. You know, you can do several people at a time. It takes a 10-minute examination and then you can basically get family members in and then they can identify, or then you can do DNA if you have to. But certainly just because we have the technology to use DNA does not mean that it’s used all the time. It’s expensive. It takes a long time. And as I say, you’ve got to have someone to compare it to. So you need an identification.

Caroline: Which is why we’ve had some really interesting developments because of people using those ancestry sites, people doing that kind of thing, where suddenly there are, there is DNA for something where there’s never been DNA before and you end up with with new suspects and so on that way.

Carla: Yes, absolutely. And you know, the thing to be said, I suppose about these ancestry sites is that, you know, people do pay to use them, and there’s a reason for that. And it’s because it takes technicians in laboratories to work on that. And it’s, you know, funding for forensic science. You would think it’s a hugely important part of any sort of the infrastructure of any country.

And the way that we’ve done it in this country has certainly changed since I started working here. It’s all privatised now. These things, they cost money and we forget that murders are happening an awful lot. And there’s a lot of different investigations going on.

So to narrow it down as much as you can without having to resort to that sort of thing, it means that a lot of Christie techniques are still going to be used, you know, up to a certain point. When it comes to toxicological examination, for example, that’s going to be very different now. The face of that is so different compared to, say, the James Marsh test for arsenic that might have been used in Christie’s day. But for the most part, a lot of the same things are being used.

Caroline: Yes. because that’s another very important feature of an autopsy is once you’ve established, when someone might have died who has actually died, looking at exactly how is really the next step for the detective to then take it onto the why.

Carla: Absolutely. I mean, without knowing how you really can’t know anything, can you? And one of the things that people will try to do is either hide how they’ve done it with, you know, so something else to misdirect perhaps the investigators or try and use, you know, the untraceable poison of some books, which is very much looked down upon I think by the detection club, that sort of thing. But there were poisons that just could not be identified for such a long time. And you think about how many murderers walked free.

For example, things like even arsenic. We said before that doctors would make a judgment call on whether or not they would carry out an autopsy based on what they knew of their patients. And they’ve had a patient who has had gastric problems for nearly a year, and they’re, you know, one hemorrhage away from death and then they die.

That doctor says, well, they’ve had gastric problems for a year. There seems to be no consideration of like why they might have had gastric problems, and was somebody putting arsenic in their tea or in their cake for the last year, you know? Building up the dose. And then this is why as we get further into, you know, Christie’s cannon and the techniques get a bit more developed, we learn of things like bodies being exhumed which is something that happens and is something that Christie even talked about in several of her books, because it did have to happen in some cases because you had to go back and say, well, those symptoms could easily have been this, that, or the other.

We know that now, so we’re going to have to go back and double check. And that’s not something that anybody wants to do because I think everybody knows really that forensic evidence is time sensitive and the information that you can get, you know, from an exhumed cadaver, is really not going to be as good as you might have gotten from a fresh cadaver, shall we say.

It’s not ideal, but in some circumstances, things like arsenic can then be detected and obviously somebody can be brought to justice after the fact.

Caroline: Yes. I think it’s in a Dorothy L Sayers novel, Unnatural Death, where someone describes a body having been kept on file in the churchyard, which I always thought was such an interesting phrase. Exactly that. That you know, there is always the option of exhumation, even if it’s not the ideal circumstance.

Carla: So it was a possibly suspicious sort of, yeah, let’s keep, let’s keep our eye on that situation? That’s good. Yeah. ‘Cause I think it became very much a sort of trope in a way, didn’t it?

If people did begin to have gastric problems and say they had a young wife, and they were an older gentleman, you know, and it would be like, oh, arsenic in the tea? You know? It became very much a sort of suspicious thing to happen. And then obviously you have to look to other different poisons perhaps.

I know that in one of these stories, I think it’s “The Lernean Hydra”. Agatha Christie talks about a dispenser. She’s suspected of being the lover of a pharmacist, I believe, who may have killed his wife or a man who may have killed his wife. And she says, well, we could exhume her, but there may have been alkaloid poisoning used. Which are vegetable alkaloids. So things like conine and nicotine, and they can’t really be detected much longer after death. So in that sort of field, you know that Agatha Christie really did know her stuff as well because she was obviously a dispenser herself. She knew her poisons, and she knew what wasn’t going to be as detectable. Arsenic as a heavy metal.

So it’s detectable for a much longer time than a vegetable alkaloid. So, but it’s interesting that we see that sort of development through her work, I think.

Caroline: Yes. As you know, analysis techniques improved and so on, she very much moved with the times, didn’t she?

Carla: Absolutely. I mean, she, she did say that she was interested in crime stories.

She said that once one reads them, you know, sort of one becomes slightly addicted. I think she probably read the Notable Trials books of the time.

She certainly read the newspapers, spoke to the detection club. I suspect she even had attended a couple of inquest. Because her inquest procedure’s spot on. You know, her crime scene investigation procedure is quite spot on and the public could attend inquests, but of course she may have even done so as part of her sort of role as a dispenser, you know, particularly during the second World War.

So she really did keep on top of that sort of thing. And she read medical journals as well. So I think that is one of the things that is such a joy to read about Christie, is that she uses that information in such an accurate way.

Caroline: So just before we finish, I wanted to ask you, with your expertise, do you have a favourite autopsy in a Christie or another classic detective novel?

Carla: I think we don’t tend to get much of the autopsy process in the books, which, you know, I think is because they’re not particularly gratuitous, I suppose.

And it’s perhaps not necessary to know exactly what’s happened during the autopsy itself. I think that one of my favourite exchanges though, just in terms of how realistic it is, it’s from one of my least favourite books, I would have to say. It’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. There are two things in that book that really strike me.

And the first is that there’s a lot of decomposition on the body. So we can sort of start to try and make our inferences from that. It’s not usual for Christie to talk about decomposition, you know, mention the color green, talk about Inspector Japp feeling sick. So that’s quite a novelty, and it’s very realistic.

There’s some forensic evidence that she uses in that book that she’s obviously very, very familiar with, to subvert it in the way that she does, and I think it’s quite genius. But also it’s because the doctor that attends the scene is very much more like a modern forensic pathologist of our day. So we would have the forensic pathologist usually called to the scene now before we move the body.

And again, in very early crime fiction people didn’t know that, and then they started to learn, you know, don’t move the body yet, let the police see them in situ, et cetera, et cetera. So the forensic pathologist goes to the scene and he makes some comments and he says, of course, well, I’ll know more when I get her back to the mortuary.

And that is probably the most common thing that I’ve ever heard a forensic pathologist say at a scene. And it just seemed so realistic and so familiar and like lovely to me. It was just really nostalgic and I thought, oh yes, he will know more when he gets to back to the mortuary. You can’t expect him to answer now.

And it was just so nice to read it, you know, it felt very realistic. So I think, yeah, and that’s probably my favourite sort of exchange when it comes to that sort of topic, and as I say, it’s not really one of my favourite books, but it was worth reading for the forensics alone.

Caroline: That’s fascinating that it’s so recognisable in that way. And that’s what got you. That’s been absolutely brilliant, Carla. Thank you so much for joining me to explain all of that.

Carla: Thank you for having me again, Caroline. It’s always a joy.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.

Thanks to my guest, Carla Valentine, for joining me. If you enjoyed our conversation, I highly recommend her book, Murder Isn’t Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie, and her previous appearance on the podcast about it — the episode is also titled Murder Isn’t Easy.

You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thegoldenageautopsy. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

Thanks for listening.

The Golden Age Autopsy

Step inside the mortuary. Thanks to my guest, Carla Valentine, for joining me. Her book, Murder Isn’t Easy: The Forensics of Agatha Christie, has lots more on this subject, as does her previous appearance on Shedunnit, Murder Isn’t Easy. Mentioned in the episode: — Murder Isn’t Easy by Carla Valentine— The Murder at the Vicarage… Continue Reading