Author Jennifer Graeser Dornbush joins us to talk about how a unique upbringing has aided her in consulting on some major Hollywood productions, and also led to her career as a thriller writer.
As you can imagine, growing up as the daughter of the county medical examiner means you probably didn’t have the same childhood as most of your peers. But for Jennifer Graeser Dornbush, that led to an interesting career as both a writer and a consultant on TV shows like Suits, Hawaii Five-Oh, Conviction, and more.
After all, while Hollywood is never going to be an exact replica of real-life, they have to make it all believable somehow, and knowing the ins and outs of forensic science goes a long way with these types of shows. It also makes for some pretty interesting cases in the Coroner’s Daughter Mysteries series.
Below, you can find a synopsis of Dornbush’s latest novel, Last One Alive, followed by an essay on her experience growing up surrounded by death and how that eventually led to a pretty interesting career of her own. If you love watching or reading thrillers, then you’ll definitely find plenty to love here!
About ‘Last One Alive’ by Jennifer Graeser Dornbush
Dr. Emily Hartford is back in Chicago, ready to move forward and leave the past behind, until an unexpected request for help sends her deep into an investigation — and into the path of a killer.
Seventeen months after the Parkman case, Dr. Hartford has returned to Chicago to finish her surgical residency. But when she is contacted out of the blue by Solange McClelland, the only survivor of a decade-old triple homicide, Emily is compelled to dig deeper. She doesn’t know the details of the event but remembers it as one of the few cases her deceased father never solved.
On her thirtieth birthday, Solange opens a long-forgotten safe-deposit box and is entirely baffled by what she finds. Inside are not only painful reminders of a once-happy youth but almost four million dollars — enough to pursue and finally solve the mystery of who brutally murdered her family. It’s been over ten years, and Solange has built a new life in Detroit with her husband, Joseph. But there are certain disturbing questions about her past that she is determined to answer. So she reaches out to the only one who might know something about her family’s deaths and their possibly erroneous death certificates — Dr. Hartford, the daughter of Freeport’s former medical examiner.
Finding it impossible to believe that her scrupulous father made a mistake, Emily joins Solange’s pursuit of the truth, and as subzero temperatures blanket snow-covered Michigan, the two women pursue justice in two very different ways. But lurking nearby in the frigid cold is a crafty, unrepentant killer, determined to finish what he started long ago.
Jennifer Graeser Dornbush on growing up with a medical examiner dad
My childhood was completely unconventional. My dad was a physician in a small town in northern Michigan. He and the other few doctors who worked at the small hospital were each assigned to do autopsies because there wasn’t a medical examiner in the county. My dad found that he was intrigued by death investigation and eventually offered to take all the autopsies. The other doctors were really glad to let him! Eventually, he was appointed the county medical examiner, a post he held for 23 years.
The county didn’t have the money to set up an M.E. office, so he set it up in our home. Dad investigated an average of 100 deaths a year—or about one death every four days. Accidents, suicides, natural deaths, and scores of drunk driving fatalities, and occasionally, homicides, kept food in the cupboards and clothes on our backs.
During the years Dad worked in forensics, I had a hands-on education in death investigation. It was as natural as brushing my teeth. But when people would ask me what my dad did, I was mortified! People back then didn’t really know what a medical examiner did or what an autopsy was. I thought it was gross. Nowadays, we all seem interested in death investigation and autopsies.
It never interested me to go into this field, so after college, I pursued work in marketing, journalism, and teaching. But my true love was writing, and I pivoted to screenwriting. While I was trying to figure out what kind of writer I was, stories from my childhood bubbled to the surface. Until that moment, I had not thought to transfer my experiences into my writing, but I soon realized I had a treasure trove to work from.
My storytelling is now very much inspired and informed by what I saw and experienced as a kid. Existing 24/7 in the world of death was like air and water for our family. Around the family dinner table Dad would recall the latest case. Dad performed autopsies at the small county hospital morgue, but all the records, paperwork, and photographs were kept at home, often in plain sight. Samples of blood and body tissue were stored in a basement freezer, right under the pork chops and frozen beans.
A few years into my writing career, I decided to go back to school to learn how to speak forensics better. My upbringing dealt primarily with death investigation, not so much criminology, DNA, ballistics, and fingerprinting. I wanted to round out my knowledge of criminal investigation to deepen and authenticate my storytelling. So, I attended the Forensic Science Academy in Los Angeles. When I was telling my writer friends about my experiences in the academy, they said that they wished they could go through it. I thought, well, why not put the academy in book form for those who aren’t able to take the academy? That inspired me to create a book built on the forensic foundation we were taught in the academy. That book is called Forensic Speak and it’s basically a forensic bootcamp in a book. And it’s been used by writers, showrunners, and even law enforcement.
Forensic Speak also opened the door for me to help other authors and writers in film and TV speak forensics better. Often writers will reach out to ask all kinds of questions…
“Can toxicology test a swatch of fabric that may contain a drug on it?”
“If a body was burned to ash, how much tissue/bone/teeth/other substance do we need to DNA match the remains?”
“How close can examiners get to knowing the exact time of death?”
I’ve consulted with writers who worked on shows like Bull, Conviction, Hawaii Five-O, Leverage, Suits, and Rectify. I enjoy giving others the tools they want to make their stories sound more authentic. And I try to do so in my own writing as well. I think truth is often stranger and better than fiction. But I also write by the principle of possible, not plausible. If a situation is possible, even just a fraction of a percent, I’ll write it if it makes for better stakes and drama. If it’s not plausible, I’ll leave it alone.
I’m often asked if there are forensic or investigative things depicted on screen that just wouldn’t happen in real-life forensics. Tons. For example, when investigators come into a crime scene and put together a full-fledged theory and cause of death in thirty seconds. Nope. Not realistic. It’s going to take days, weeks, sometimes months to gather information in a criminal investigation.
Then there’s how on-screen investigators return to the crime scene days after it’s been investigated and find a key piece of evidence that solves the case! Nope. Once that crime scene is unsecured, anything found is no longer admissible in court.
Or another commonly used on-screen forensic misconception is how a toxicologist will run a complete drug screen on a sample to find the offending drug. Nope. Toxicologists will only run a generic panel of about 6-8 commonly used street drugs (heroine, codeine, morphine, cocaine, opiates) unless there is suspicion or knowledge that another drugged was involved and the investigator requests a particular drug screen. Why? There are hundreds, if not thousands of drugs out there in the world. You can’t test for all of them. It’s too timely and expensive.
Another question I’m often asked is, what books and shows get forensics “right”? Generally, I think novelists do a fairly good job of this. It’s easier in some ways to get forensics “right” in novels because authors have the advantage of time and the luxury of a 300-plus page book. Screen stories, however, are truncated forms of storytelling. Each script page is equivalent to one minute of screen time. Working within those boundaries, I do think there are a good number of shows that speak forensic investigation and the criminal world pretty well. Mindhunter, The Americans, Homeland, Hawaii 5-0, NYPD, The Good Wife, House, Law & Order, NCIS, Cold Case, Dexter, True Detective, Top of the Lake, Broadchurch. I’m sure there are more, but those come to mind.
Delving into the crime world day after day can be daunting and depressing if you let it get the best of you. I try to focus on my personal vision to bring hope and light into the dark recesses of the human experience… because, as this coroner’s daughter understands more than most, life is short and the only thing that lasts after we’re gone is the hope, light, and love we show to those around us who need it most.
I think you’ll find in Last One Alive, as with the other novels in The Coroner’s Daughter series, lots of juicy forensic nuggets and page-turning investigative suspense… but, my deepest hope is that you’ll also fall in love with Dr. Emily Hartford and her search to discover her true north, her true love, and her true home.
One tiny, little spoiler… Last One Alive ends with a cliff hanger. But please, don’t send me nasty-grams. Emily’s story continues in books 4 and 5—coming soon from Blackstone!
About Jennifer Graeser Dornbush
Jennifer Dornbush is a screenwriter, author, international speaker, and forensic specialist. Raised as the daughter of a medical examiner whose office was in their home; forensics and crime writing are infused into her DNA. To date, Jennifer penned suspense thriller Hole in the Woods; an historical crime fiction The Locard Principle; a true crime memoir, Raised By The Ice Man; on-going mystery series The Coroner’s Daughter, and contributes to mystery anthologies, She also created the acclaimed crime writer’s guide Forensic Speak. As a screenwriter Jennifer has optioned, sold, developed, and adapted material for film and television. She is a sought-out international teacher, speaker, and mentor.
‘Last One Alive’ hit store shelves on October 24, 2023
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