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Dead Center by Shiya Ribowsky & Tom Shachtman

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“Dead Center: Behind the Scenes at the World’s Largest Medical Examiner’s Office” by Shiya Ribowsky and Tom Shachtman
Former Director of Special Projects,
New York City Medical Examiner’s Office.


“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals, and their regard for the laws of the land.”
William Ewart Gladstone 1809-1898

Up until this week, I’ve not read any books on 9/11. That day is still too painful, too devastating that I shunned the myriad of books in print. When I picked this book up at the library, I was not aware that 9/11 stood at the center of this narrative. A story of how people live is always what interests me the most and that is what called me to this book. Tell me why you do what you do, your job, your marriage, how do you manage life in all it’s complexities, tell it in a compelling way and I’m there. Medical science, detective tales and yes, even murder touches a twisted curiosity in me, this book offered a handy combo. Recently, I read “Better” by Dr Atul Gawande – fascinating narratives on the ever-complex practice of medicine. Practice being the key word. These types of books hold my attention but Dead Center offered unique insight into a place portrayed in countless detective shows, the Medical Examiner’s Office. Does anyone else remember, Quincy? We’ve moved onto CSI in TV land a particularly fanciful look at the world of crime but obviously the ratings reflect a collective conscious interest in these topics. Dead Center tells the story of 9/11 from the perspective of one person involved in the colossal effort to identify the victims. He does not start there but that is the heart of his tale. Upon the first anniversary of 9/11, only 500 of the victims had been identified despite massive efforts. What struck me was the dedication, selflessness and all consuming effort by employees of the city government, who often do not have sterling reputations for effort. In the end, these dedicated professionals were able to identify over 80% of the victims. It would not be everyone’s choice for a Sunday afternoon read but I’m glad it was mine.