‘I was expecting a Hannibal Lecter type from Silence of the Lambs’ – Read an excerpt from Autopsy: Life in the Trenches With a Forensic Pathologist in Africa by Ryan Blumenthal
 More about the book!

Jonathan Ball Publishers has shared an excerpt from Autopsy: Life in the Trenches With a Forensic Pathologist in Africa by Ryan Blumenthal.

As a medical detective of the modern world, forensic pathologist Blumenthal’s chief goal is to bring perpetrators to justice.

He has performed thousands of autopsies, which have helped bring numerous criminals to book.

In Autopsy he covers the hard lessons learnt as a rookie pathologist, as well as some of the most unusual cases he’s encountered. During his career, for example, he has dealt with high-profile deaths, mass disasters, death by lightning and people killed by African wildlife.

Blumenthal takes the reader behind the scenes at the mortuary, describing a typical autopsy and the instruments of the trade. He also shares a few trade secrets, like how to establish when a suicide is more likely to be a homicide.

Even though they cannot speak, the dead have a lot to say – and Blumenthal is there to listen.

About the author

Ryan Blumenthal is a forensic pathologist at one of South Africa’s leading universities. He has published widely in the fields of lightning, suicide and other areas involving the pathology of trauma. He has been involved in the publication of numerous articles and textbooks. His chief mission in life is to help advance forensic pathology services both nationally and internationally.

Read the excerpt:


Over the years, South African society has become more and more emotionally blunted to crime and death. When we first heard about house robberies and hijackings, we were shocked. After a while, these crimes became fairly common. People started responding to them by saying things like, ‘Well, at least no one was hurt.’

The problem is that hijacking, robbery, murder and any other attacks on innocent civilians represent pathology in society. The ‘at least’ response is pathological – it is an unnatural response to an unnatural situation. In my opinion, almost all of our problems begin with the words ‘at least’. It is not a natural response to a natural situation – it is an unnatural response to an unnatural situation.

The thing is, the baseline of what is considered normal is constantly shifting. In fact, some refer to it as shifting baseline syndrome, which means that, over time, knowledge is lost about the state of the natural world because people don’t perceive changes that are actually taking place. It is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system.

What is normal today? For instance, what is a normal forensic pathology caseload for a forensic pathologist? Was the suicide rate always this high? Was homicide always this violent? At times, the numbers of the dead and the severity of the pathology seen at autopsy makes me think that I am living in a Mad Max movie.

When people ask me, ‘What is killing South Africans?’, my answer is simple: ‘South Africans are killing South Africans. We are a country at war with itself.’

This brings me back to the reason I went into forensic pathology – I wanted to help real victims. This is my silent and steady driver. Every time I hear of a crime, it boils my blood and I feel compelled to work harder and smarter to catch and outwit the criminals. It isn’t always easy in these times, with the rights of criminals seemingly far outweighing the rights of civilians, when the burden of proof is so heavy and rich criminals seem to be able to buy their freedom with expensive defence lawyers. By proving scientifically that right is right, I do my bit to ensure that justice prevails.

There is simply no greater feeling than that of helping to catch a bad guy. Studying and working in forensic pathology has made me feel like something of a vigilante crime fighter. It gives me immeasurable pleasure to see criminals in handcuffs, heads bowed, being taken to their cells after a guilty verdict.

I am not physically strong. All I have is my mind, which I use to help fight crime and bullying, and to defeat evil. In the words of Rudyard Kipling: ‘They copied all they could follow, but they couldn’t copy my mind, / and I left ’em sweating and stealing, a year and a half behind.’


I have dealt with my fair share of criminals over the past decade, and not all of them were dead. Mr X was the head of one of the most dangerous syndicates in the country. He had been on Southern Africa’s most wanted list for several years before he was finally caught. The charges against him included, but were not limited to, house robbery, hijacking, murder, assault, assault with grievous bodily harm, rape and kidnapping, and he was even implicated in rhino horn trafficking.

He had apparently escaped from prison twice before, but when I met him he was awaiting trial in one of the most secure prison facilities in the country. (The policeman who eventually captured Mr X was given a car as a reward.)

Apparently, Mr X had left a single droplet of blood at one crime scene. A reference blood sample was required from him for DNA testing in order to prove his presence at that specific scene. I was asked to draw the blood. Blood was also to be taken from him to test for a host of sexually transmitted diseases, because he had also been implicated in several rape cases.

I thought my last living patient was the British man with the asthma attack who smoked fifty cigarettes a day. I was now to meet another living patient.

When I arrived at the prison, I was met by the head of security, who briefed me on just how dangerous Mr X was. He was being kept in isolation, away from all the other prisoners, and was under what the head of security called ‘extreme lockdown’. I was told how to behave, and even how to communicate with Mr X.

To get to Mr X, I would have to walk past all the other dangerous inmates in that particular prison block. I was warned to keep my hands in my pockets and not to make eye contact. I was also warned to stay well away from the cells in case one of the prisoners grabbed me from within a cell and injured me or tried to strangle me against the prison bars.

I must confess that, after hearing this brief and what the police had told me about Mr X, shivers went down my spine. According to the stories, Mr X was an ex-child soldier from a neighbouring African country who had killed countless people and apparently had no social conscience. He had moved to South Africa and become involved in criminal activities. Apparently he was extremely successful, and had built up a small criminal empire.

With hands in my pockets, I slowly walked the block where the most dangerous criminals were kept. The smells and sounds of that prison block I cannot describe in words. I was shocked by the conditions: it seemed so overcrowded. I had heard that inmates rotated their bunk beds for six- to eight-hour sleep shifts because there weren’t enough beds for all of them.

After passing door after door after door of concrete and iron, in what seemed like a labyrinth of passages, I finally arrived at Mr X’s cell. I was escorted by three bulky prison guards, the most muscular prison officials I have ever had the privilege to meet. I could feel my heart pounding.

But the man who sat before me was the most insignificant looking individual I had ever seen. This 40 kg slip of a man was just sitting there in his chair, looking as helpless as a sickly elderly person. He neither greeted me nor made any attempt at eye contact. He just sat there, passively, staring at the floor. He was only twenty-seven years old, but he had already lived the lives of many men.

I simply drew the blood from his arm, thanked him and left the prison.

Meeting Mr X was one of the biggest non-events of my career. I was expecting a Hannibal Lecter type from Silence of the Lambs, but what I saw before me was a person you wouldn’t even notice if you walked past him in the street. By the way the police had built him up in my mind, he had become some near-mythological figure. This reaffirmed a very basic life lesson: it’s not what you look like, but what you’ve done in your life that counts.

Later that week, his blood tests returned from the laboratory. He had tested positive for a whole range of tenacious sexually transmitted diseases. His DNA also matched the DNA of the blood found on the crime scene.


Categories Non-fiction South Africa

Tags Autopsy Book excerpts Book extracts Jonathan Ball Publishers Ryan Blumenthal

1 Votes

You must log in to post a comment