Review; Mop Men: California’s Crime Scene Cleaners- Alan Emmins

I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to eat Rice Krispies ever again… (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Published by Corvo Books- 2004

Paperback- 214 pages

Um yeah. So this is a bit of a weird book for me to review here I know, but I really enjoy books about forensic pathology and true crime and this has a bit of both- so why not? It was an informative, quick read that makes the reader think and I actually enjoyed it a lot.

Mop Men follows investigative journalist Alan Emmins as he shadows real life crime scene cleaners- those unlucky few who tidy up after suicides, murders and accidental deaths. In this real life account of Emmin’s time spent on the job, he explores the American attitude to death as well as the grim adage that death sells. And yes, after reading this I have to concede that indeed it does.

Following an idea for a magazine article (which he would later develop into this book), in 2003 Emmins followed Neal Smither and his colleagues from Crime Scene Inc around San Francisco.  In what could have been a morbid or dark subject, Emmins manages to see the humorous and poignant side of life, as well as death, and encounters a wide array of people who face death on a daily basis. Sometimes bleak, sometimes compassionate, this manages to be an incredibly eye-opening look at an industry about in which the average person would dare not tread.

From the outset I do have to concede that this book doesn’t shy away from the gore and nastiness of suicides and scenes of death and decomposition- particularly the odours that can be evoked. Ugh. Also, after the graphic description of maggot larvae it is also seriously doubtful whether I will ever look at a bowl of Rice Krispies in the same way ever again. Be warned: those people with a weak stomach may not be able to handle this book! There is also quite a lot of extreme swearing, which doesn’t bother me particularly, though some people may feel differently. That’s the jist about this book as a whole though.

Despite the blood and gore, this book also contains scientific information that I found to be worthwhile reading. But, I think for me one of the most interesting aspects of this book is that whilst death is something of a taboo subject; it is something that is undoubtedly still oddly fascinating to many people. Smither has managed to make a profitable business out of a contentious matter that many people would balk at and is definitely the star of this story.  He comes across as a bit of a jerk initially actually, completely emotionless to the sights and happenings around him and managing to laugh and joke about things that the regular person would find gory or heartbreaking in the extreme. As a reader you initially find yourself angered by his blasé manner, then ultimately come to realise that with what Smither sees everyday that it is hardly surprising that he (and his colleagues) are desensitised to such events and that deep down he is actually a solid family man. There is no denying though that he makes money from death and that this is something that as a businessman, he relishes, which is a bit of a sobering thought. Then again, I genuinely wonder how some people can stomach such a job and what it entails, though of course someone has to do it. As Smither’s himself concedes: it’s better that Crime Scene Inc clean up the scene of a messy suicide, rather than the family members be faced with such a horrendous task.

I’ve deducted a star from this book merely because I did find Emmin’s style of prose to be a bit rambling at times; admittedly never to the extent where it was incoherent, but there did seem to be a lot of irrelevant padding included within the narrative that grew annoying at times. I also found his random insertations from American news channels, as well as with Arnold Swartznegger’s political campaign to be a bit jarring and distracting. Though I am aware that they were ‘current’ at the time of Emmins’ writing, in hindsight they just appear odd and detract from the main content of the book overall. Despite this, I would pick up more from this author in future.

If you read and enjoy this book or have an interest in forensic pathology then I also highly recommend that you check out Death’s Acre by Bill Bass, which is a fascinating, albeit slightly more scientific account of the setting up of his world-renowned ‘Body Farm’ in Tennessee. Alternatively, Stiff by Mary Roach is also another enlightening and ultimately uplifting read about this taboo subject.

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