Thursday, August 16, 2007

I've been remiss in discussing my summer reading on this blog, but I just finished a rather unusual book that definitely warrants a mention: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. I encountered a fleeting reference to the studies in an interview recently, and immediately sought out this book, from 2004, which documents these macabre dollhouses and Frances Glessner Lee, who created them.

Basically, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are a series of dioramas, meticulously created dollhouses which capture the initial state of repose of various people, whom have dropped dead under mysterious circumstances. All are based on reality to some degree, with most being a composite of several police investigations. Lee created these studies as an educational tool, to train first responders on how to observe, preserve and evaluate a crime scene; the goal of the studies is not necessarily to solve the crime, but to determine what evidence at the scene is pertinent, and what further tests should be performed by the medical examiner. Lee was an early proponent of what was then called legal medicine, and advocated for the creation of medical examiners offices (at the time, many coroners, appointed by patronage, had no medical training).

The book opens with an interesting essay about Lee and the studies, and about the gender and class politics under which Lee lived. But the bulk of the book is dedicated to depicting the studies, through descriptions, line drawing, and lots of pictures. Rather than being strictly representational, the photos take a more expressionistic approach, capturing the tension between the innocence of the form and the violence of the content, and the hope depicted externally in many of the studies through windows and paintings depicting more idyllic environs, a hope the victim, dead in their often squalid homes, failed to reach. And while there are disturbing photos of dolls having reached their grisly ends, most of the photos focus on the incidental details of their homes, the banal belongings that define a time and place, and ultimately, a life. Corrine May Botz, the author and photographer responsible for this volume, quotes Paul Auster regarding the objects of a dead man: "They are there and yet not there: tangible ghosts, condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to. What is one to think, for example, of a closetful of clothes waiting silently to be worn again by a man who will not be coming back to open the door?" The preserved remnants of a life snuffed out are often more unsettling than the (admittedly creepy) dead dolls.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death would appeal to those whose interests run towards the macabre or the morbid, but it is not limited in its appeal to that audience. While the studies are not strictly speaking mysteries to be wrapped up neatly (though there is a general solution to the studies, since they are still used as a training tool, the solution to all but a handful of the studies is not provided--in general, the solutions are not too terribly hard to fathom, though the kitchen vignette really confounds me), fans of detective fiction and true crime should appreciate this book. And the story of Frances Glessner Lee, a woman whose ambitions were suppressed by the expectations for her gender and the heavy burden her wealthy family imposed upon her, offers interesting insights into the options available to upper-class women in the early twentieth century.

The book's Amazon page has some photos, and you can also see some photos and learn more from articles from American Medical News and 2wice (the former, written well before the publication of the book, has original photos, and more importantly, solutions not offered in the book).

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