Review: 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics



18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics
by Bruce Goldfarb

The biography of Frances Glessner Lee, 18 Tiny Deaths is an interesting but uneven book. In it's defense, I don't know that anyone's life story well told would be consistently interesting or entertaining throughout.

The author, Bruce Goldfarb, has a personal connection to the 18 "tiny deaths" of the title. These are murder scenes in miniature, dioramas that Frances Glessner Lee created as part of her work to move death investigations from the unprofessional and medieval to the scientific and modern. Goldfarb's background is as a medical journalist and he's currently employed by the chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland, which still uses Lee's dioramas as part of it's training for police officers involved in death investigations.

The book uses the dioramas as an entry point into a thorough biography of Glessner Lee, who was an heiress to one of the founders of International Harvester and who, later in life, through a reconnection with a childhood friend, became a strong proponent of the importance of what today is called forensic science (like you'd see in an episode of CSI). She was instrumental in founding a department dedicated to "Legal Medicine" at Harvard, funded (and helped stock) a library there dedicated to forensics, and financed coursework for both doctors and police officers. She herself led many of the seminars for police officers held there. She traveled and lectured public groups in her quest to improve our ability  as a society to understand causes of unexpected deaths and to use scientific facts to "clear the innocent and convict the guilty".  She became well respected in police circles for helping to improve death investigative practices. 

The fact that Lee's interest in forensic investigations started later in her life leads to the unevenness of the book. Many of the early chapters that describe her life up to her reconnecting with her childhood friend (between a third and a half of the book) may or may not hold interest if all you want to know about is the forensics piece. The early part of the book takes place in Chicago and New England, and, as I have connections to both places, it was interesting to me. Whether others would be as interested in that history I don't know. But the book definitely picks up the pace in the second half. 

I give 18 Tiny Deaths 3 Stars ⭐⭐⭐ - I liked the book. If you're interested in history, particularly history of middle America in the early to mid-twentieth century, and you have an interest in CSI, you will like this book too.

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