An Unexplained Death, Mikita Brottman: Nine Pints, Rose George

Doug Johnstone is gripped by a true crime tale aiming to get to the bottom of a Baltimore man’s mysterious death

This week we have two non-fiction books that look at aspects of life that most of us don’t consider too often, and they both demonstrate that the best non-fiction can have just as much of an emotional pull as your favourite novel.

First we have An Unexplained Death (Canongate, £14.99) by Mikita Brottman. The author is a professor of humanistic studies and psychoanalyst, and runs a true crime podcast, and this intriguing book taps into all that experience.

1333 Book jacket, An Unexplained Death, Mikita Brottman
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Brottman lives in downtown Baltimore at the old Belvedere Hotel, now converted into an apartment complex, and the starting point for the book was when she spotted a missing person poster while out walking her dog, for the tall, dark and handsome Rey Rivera.

The poster preyed on Brottman’s mind, then days later Rivera’s decomposing body was found in a locked office in an unused part of the Belvedere, a whole in the roof suggesting he’d jumped from a higher part of the building. The police declared it suicide and moved on, but Brottman became obsessed with Rivera’s death and subsequently his life. She investigated both for over a decade, talking to relatives, friends, colleagues, police, private investigators – anyone with a connection to Rivera.

Brottman delivers strong elements of memoir here, talking about her own life and obsession with death

Why did his family refuse to believe suicide? Where was the original police report? What about his job working for a shady financial investment company?

This is the hook that drives the narrative forward, but An Unexplained Death is a much deeper and more compelling story than just Rivera’s suspicious death. Brottman delivers strong elements of memoir here, talking about her own life and obsession with death. She traces the history of the old Belvedere Hotel, once a suicide hotspot, and looks at a number of deaths in the building over the years. And she draws wider implications about our attitudes to death as the book progresses, examining why we often shy away from it but are drawn towards it at the same time.

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I’m not by nature a huge fan of the true crime genre but An Unexplained Death is something special. Brottman’s searing honesty and insight, and her smooth, sinewy prose, turn this into a rather profound meditation on life and death, and our attitudes to both. Highly recommended. 

1333 Book jacket, Nine Pints, Rose George
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Next we go on A Journey through the Mysterious, Miraculous World of Blood, which is the subtitle of Rose George’s brilliantly entertaining Nine Pints (Portobello Books, £14.99). The author is an acclaimed investigative journalist who has written about subjects as diverse as human waste and shipping, and here she turns her attention to the stuff of life. 

The ‘nine pints’ of the title is roughly what each of us has running through our veins, and George takes that as a framework to tell nine fascinating stories, looking at everything from menstruation to the resurrection of leeches at the cutting edge of modern medicine. She travels widely too, examining the HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as various different cultural attitudes to all aspects of our relationship with the red stuff.

In the process George doesn’t shy away from being angry or even polemical. She castigates those behind the infected blood scandal here in the UK, as well as politicians attempting to dismantle and sell off the NHS. Indeed, the book is dedicated to the NHS, and this fascinating book is a worthy tribute to that wonderful institution. 

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman, out now (Canongate, £14.99)

Nine Pints by Rose George, out now (Portobello Books, £14.99)