A Life in Death by Richard Venables

A behind the scenes look at how victims of accidents and natural disasters are identified, from the perspective of a British police officer.

Detective Inspector Richard Venables has helped identify thousands of bodies all over the world, piecing together fragments from tsunamis, transport and other disasters to return victims to their loved ones.

I have a fascination with this subject matter which goes back many years to reading a book about facial reconstruction from skeletal remains, covering historical figures to the last unidentified person from the 1987 King’s Cross fire (finally given his name back in 2004). Of course not only can I not remember the name of the book, I can’t find it on my shelves so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was absolutely worth reading.

Anyway, I regularly pick up books on the subject whenever I see them, and was particularly interested in this one because of its focus on UK disasters as well as, of course, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which led to the deaths of an estimated 230,000 people.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me at least, was the amount of detail Venables goes into in recounting the development of DVI policies and procedures. I don’t know whether it’s because I was a civil servant for thirty years and heavily involved in writing guidance documents myself, but I appreciated his descriptions of how he and colleagues learned from each of the events in which they were involved, trying to make things more efficient and easier for the people involved in the DVI (Disaster Victim Identification) process, as well as the families who had lost loved ones. It wasn’t a perfect system but what is when humans are involved?

Some of the events he talks about hit home to me, especially the London bombings in 2005. One of my friends was on the tube train which exploded at Russell Square, and our office (which was within easy walking distance from that station and Tavistock Square where a double-decker bus exploded) was on lockdown for several hours. My friend was thankfully not physically hurt, and the impact on all of us lasted a very long time.

But the event that obviously had the greatest long-term effect on Venables was the tsunami. He worked in Thailand for many weeks on the difficult task of identifying people who had drowned in the disaster, with the heat and the effects of salt water on the remains adding to the difficulty of the task. His affection for Thailand and its people comes across very clearly.

I found it an informative read but a bit unbalanced, not sure how much of the author’s personal life to include. But I would still recommend it if this is a subject that speaks to you. Or is it just me?

This was my second read for #20booksofsummer20

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.