Sunday, March 28, 2021


AFTERSHOCK by Judy Melinek & TJ Mitchell (Hanover Square Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

There’s a body crushed under a load of pipes on a San Francisco construction site, and medical examiner Dr Jessie Teska is on call. So it’s her job to figure out who it is—and her headache when the autopsy reveals that the death is a homicide staged as an accident.

Jessie is hot on the murderer’s trail, then an earthquake sends her and her whole city reeling. When the dust clears, her case has fallen apart and an innocent man is being framed. Jessie knows she’s the only one who can prove it, and she races to piece together the truth—before it gets buried and brings her down in the rubble.

After falling in love with mysteries thanks to the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and Agaton Sax, one of my first tastes of darker, modern crime writing was when I devoured the early books of Patricia Cornwell when I was at high school. I tore through novels like POSTMORTEM, CRUEL AND UNUSUAL, and FROM POTTERS FIELD. With her main character Dr Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell brought a new forensics focus to crime fiction which has only grown in the three decades since her debut, both in books and on television (eg CSI and all that followed). 

So I was curious about this new novel, the second in a series about a Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in San Francisco that's written by an American husband-and-wife team who emigrated to New Zealand during the pandemic. Interestingly, while Cornwell was able to bring a sense of authenticity to her Scarpetta novels because she'd worked in a Medical Examiner's office as a computer analyst, in this case the fiction is even closer to the truth as Judy Melinek is herself a forensic pathologist. 

Unsurprisingly, Melinek and Mitchell do a great job immersing readers into some of the realities of forensic pathology and life in the Medical Examiner's office, including plenty of details readers may not have considered. In AFTERSHOCK, Dr Jessie Teska is dragged from her bed to attend a death on a building site. Many there seem more concerned about getting the body cleared and work back underway, but Teska soon suspects foul play rather than an unfortunate workplace accident. The victim is a famed architect whose professional and personal run-ins provide a decent pool of suspects. 

Who didn't want him dead?

The case gets even more complicated when a deadly earthquake strikes the Bay Area, threatening to overwhelm Teska and her colleagues at the Medical Examiner's office. With the bodies piling up and the cops focused on a suspect Teska believes is being scapegoated or set up, she must put herself at further risk to find the real killer. Meanwhile her relationship is showing its own cracks. 

Overall, I enjoyed AFTERSHOCK. It's a story that flows well, and Melinek and Mitchell give readers an eye-opening insight into the realities of working in the ME's office (though it seems Teska steps outside the remit of her job with her investigations). Teska is an interesting character: I hadn't yet read the first in the series, FIRST CUT, but it was easy enough to pick up some backstory in this novel. 

The more you learn, the more interesting she becomes. At times I wasn't sure how I felt about Teska (not that that matters too much - crime protagonists don't have to be likable, just interesting or engaging). She's the kind of heroine that may divide readers: she's young, headstrong, and hands-on, and some of her choices make you roll your eyes. She's driven to go beyond, to do more, in a search for justice. Yet sometimes it kinds seems like she's holding others' to higher standards than herself, and is a bit contradictory. Of course, that's all part of being messily human too, so can be fine anyway (as long as it's not just author manipulation to make something fit or work for sstory purposes). 

Regardless, Teska is definitely a fascinating character, and one that by the end of the book I was keen to spend more time with. I'll definitely go back and read the first in the series, and look forward to the next. The full cast that includes some rather memorable friends, colleagues, and others adds further layers of colour and interest to a pacy, intriguing read that plays in the same waters as Patricia Cornwell while being distinctly it's own thing. AFTERSHOCK is a good read worth checking out. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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