Death becomes him

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FORENSIC pathologist Jonathan Hayes's life reads like a thriller ... which is why he decided to write one

ONE OF Dr Jonathan Hayes's favourite moments from grisly US crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation involves a badly decomposed body and Las Vegas forensics investigator Warrick Brown taking maggots from the rotting corpse for analysis. A single maggot is placed under the microscope and Brown begins to dissect it.

"It's a great scene," Hayes says, pointing out that in real life the procedure actually involves "a cupful of maggots and a blender".

Popular, ratings-topping TV shows such as the CSI franchise, Six Feet Under, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead are not so much about forensic science as forensic science fiction. Nevertheless, career forensic pathologist Hayes finds television's glamorisation of his profession highly entertaining, even if the fictional crime scene investigators are always surrounded by "exquisite corpses" and they never get down and dirty.

Hayes knows all about what the reality is. As a senior medical examiner in the office of New York City's Chief ME, he has pulled bloated bodies out of Florida's swampy Everglades and worked at multiple, bloody homicide scenes, as well as spending painful months attempting to identify victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

"Death will happen to all of us, and in our culture we do our best to hide it," he wrote in one New York magazine. Shows such as CSI, he points out, allow us to look at death and not turn away. But while we may have wall-to-wall death on primetime TV, with shows such as STV's new US import, Dexter – the bloody and brutal tale of the Miami forensics guy who is a serial killer at night – it's always mediated through the lens of forensic science, thus sanitising and protecting viewers from some stark truths.

Murder, of course, is the currency of all those TV forensics shows, whereas Hayes's job more often involves carrying out post-mortems into natural deaths, the victims of accidents or suicides. One moment he's performing an autopsy on a wealthy Park Avenue matron, the next he's working on a crack-addicted prostitute with Aids who died in a freezing-cold Bronx apartment.

We meet at Hayes's Manhattan loft apartment, where he plans his lectures on forensic topics for the FBI and the NYPD Homicide Investigation School and writes restaurant reviews – he has an interesting double life, being also a renowned food critic and onetime contributing editor to Martha Stewart Living magazine, much to the amusement of the NYPD cops with whom he works. His latest spare-time venture, though, is writing thrillers – about a forensic pathologist investigating murders in New York.

Determined to set the record straight about forensic sleuthing, Hayes has produced a terrifyingly accurate, sometimes gruesome procedural thriller – the first of a series featuring forensic pathologist Dr Edward Jenner. Hayes claims he has never read a crime novel that actually captures a medical death investigation with integrity, which is one of the reasons he wrote Precious Blood. Indeed, websites suggest that readers wondering if the book is for them try the Page 69 test – a nightmarishly graphic description of an autopsy unlike anything you'll ever see on CSI.

The novel tells how the traumatised Jenner left the office of New York's ME after 9/11, broken by too many deaths and too few answers. He's forced out of retirement a couple of years later to help the hunt for a serial killer stalking the streets of downtown Manhattan and the desolate Brooklyn waterfront.

"This city and its people were damaged hugely after 9/11," says Hayes, whose Dr Jenner speaks movingly of how hard things were for him and for so many others after the attack on the Twin Towers. It is, of course, Hayes speaking through his likeable protagonist, telling how he worked alongside a flood of volunteers from across the country in a makeshift morgue in a tent on 30th Street.

When Jenner says in Precious Blood that 9/11 is not over, "not for me, not for many people; maybe it'll never be over", he is right – fresh efforts to identify further victims of the attacks are now being made in the Chief ME's office, following the discovery of more human remains around Ground Zero. In all, 1,796 pieces were found. The sorting operations wound up in December last year and the painstaking DNA work is just beginning.

With the terror attacks, Hayes lost the clinical detachment that is so necessary to his line of work.

"I'd always been able to maintain a distance from the work I do, but everything changed after 9/11," he says. "With most mass disasters, the forensic pathologist has a straightforward job, although it can be extremely demanding, both emotionally and physically. But you're a scientist with a job to do.

"So many of the remains came from firemen and police officers. Whenever the body of one was recovered, the entire squadron or the firehouse would gather in the ME's office. They would salute the flag-draped coffin, there would be silence, then there would be crying. It was so hard – it went on for eight long months."

Hayes did a lot of extra shifts, initially running on adrenaline. But the process was profoundly damaging to him. He put on a lot of weight, his relationships suffered and he became reclusive. He also suffered from chronic insomnia. "There was this sense of waiting for the next thing – and two months later we had to handle 350 fatalities in the Queens plane crash."

"I am proud of the work we did on 9/11, but it was very, very difficult. My life up to that point had been astonishingly rich. I'd do a homicide autopsy in the morning and in the afternoon I'd testify in a murder trial. In the evening, I'd go to a restaurant and review it.

"After 9/11, I remember coming home one mid-September morning after being up all night doing autopsies, then having to write a piece for Martha Stewart Living called Nutcracker Sweets, about desserts and Christmas treats inspired by the music – before going back to another day of autopsies.

"At first, I couldn't get my head round it – I thought I was going to snap. However, it was a good way to remind myself that it isn't all carnage and destruction, that there can be perfection, and that people can still struggle to make something beautiful and precious. Sometimes, I think Martha Stewart saved my life!"

BRISTOL-BORN Hayes is the only child of parents who were childhood sweethearts. His father's job as a general pathologist meant that his own early years were peripatetic. The family lived in Jamaica, Toronto and Boston before Hayes was sent home to England, to board at Downside, the independent Catholic school near Bath.

"I'd spend eight months every year at school in England, three in Boston and a month travelling in Europe with my parents," he recalls. "It was a very schizophrenic upbringing."

From an early age, though, he knew that he would end up living and working in New York City.

"When I was about five, my mother took me to visit friends here. It was the first time I'd seen a big city and the first time I'd seen a colour TV. It seemed so exciting and happening and dynamic – this was everything I wanted my life to be."

Trained as a doctor at St Thomas's Hospital in London, he was a good student but felt out of place. "Americans see me as English and the English regard me as American," he says in the very precise English accent which he works at. "It really comes out when I'm speaking to a jury. The Americans love it, of course."

Originally, he planned to specialise in paediatric oncology. However, he found himself becoming overly anxious about his young patients. "I knew if I continued in that branch of medicine I'd burn out very quickly. When I was off for a weekend, I couldn't let it alone. I'd be calling up to check on my patients all the time, always worrying."

An opening came up at the Boston University Medical Center, where his father worked, and he moved there to train as an anatomic pathologist. "I hated it; it was awful – terribly boring. I'm talking about general pathology where you make diagnoses from specimens of tissue, say. The diagnosis may be terrible for the patient, but at the end of the day it's just a question of pattern recognition. It's like sorting out Animal Crackers – that's a lion, that's a giraffe. It wasn't interesting to me."

The ME's office was in the same building and Hayes became fascinated by forensic pathology. "What I love about it is that a story always goes with it," he says. "There'll be some interesting observational insight into the way human beings live – and how they die."

One day he was in the ME's office when they were working on a puzzling case. Suddenly, Hayes had a hunch about what had been going on – and he was proved right by the autopsy.

"I heard this angel choir singing. That was it! I was going to be a forensic pathologist," he says, laughing. He got onto the best training programme in the US, in Miami, becoming an associate ME in Dade County at the height of the cocaine wars in 1989.

A real-life version of Miami Vice? "Surprisingly, yes! Although maybe not quite as exotic or sexy," he laughs. "It was the most exciting year of my life; I was so gung-ho. There was this huge crime wave, with all the cocaine cowboys. The number of homicides! Everything was so spectacular, very Hollywood-like and I had some juicy cases. But, in Miami, I really learned how to work a crime scene."

Occasionally, in the middle of the night, he would be taken by helicopter to the Everglades to pull out the bodies of victims who had been shot and dumped. "One time I was standing in the Everglades at 3am, sweating and wrestling this guy out of the water, with a Sheriff's Deputy beside me shooting the alligators trying to attack us, thinking, how the hell did I get into this? I'd helicopter back into Miami, then drive home feeling completely wired at 4am. There'd be models in bikinis, high on cocaine, rollerblading down the main drag; it was surreal."

Today, in his considered opinion – one of his trademark phrases – Hayes feels that it was always inevitable that he would become a forensic pathologist. "It was as if I'd been preparing for it all my life. When I was 12, I was obsessed with reading about the history of fingerprinting, all of which I remembered vividly when I started doing this job. As a boy, I also read all the Sherlock Holmes stories.

"We still refer to Conan Doyle today. In New York, we pride ourselves on a very intellectual, very rational approach to forensics. All scientists do, of course, but this is something we're very conscious of.

"There's been a tradition in forensic pathology practice – and it very much applies in the United Kingdom – of learning by anecdote. Which is demoting it to pattern recognition, substituting intuitive response for logical, critical analysis. But we are very rigorous, very Holmesian, which is sometimes seen as pretentious. However, in the Chief ME's office in New York we like to quote Holmes: 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'

"I don't know what the function of a life is, but I certainly want to spend mine trying to understand this world I'm living in for the next 40 years or so. Through death, I see life."

Precious Blood by Jonathan Hayes is published by Arrow, priced 6.99.

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