The Corpse Reader: New Excerpt

An excerpt of The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido, a novel based on the work of Song Cí, the real-life thirteenth-century “father” of modern forensic investigation (available May 28, 2013).

After his grandfather dies, avid scholar and budding forensic investigator Song Cí grudgingly gives up his studies to help his family. But when another tragedy strikes, and he’s deemed a fugitive, Song Cí has no choice but to accept work as a gravedigger, a position that allows him to sharpen his corpse-reading skills. Soon, he can deduce whether a person killed himself—or was murdered.

His prowess earns him notoriety, and Cí receives orders to determine the perpetrator of a horrific series of mutilations and deaths at the Imperial Court. Cí’s gruesome investigation quickly grows complicated thanks to old loyalties and the presence of an alluring, enigmatic woman. But he remains driven by his passion for truth—especially once the killings threaten to take down the Emperor himself.

Inspired by Song Cí, considered to be the founding father of CSI-style forensic science, this harrowing novel set during the thirteenth-century Tsong Dynasty draws readers into a multilayered, ingenious plot as disturbing as it is fascinating.

Cí was up before dawn so he could meet Judge Feng at the residence of Bao-Pao—where government officials stayed whenever they were in the area—to examine the corpse. In the room next door, Lu was snoring loudly. By the time he awoke, Cí would be long gone.

Cí dressed quietly and left the house. The rain had stopped, but the air was muggy. He took a deep breath before diving into the labyrinth of tight village roads, where a series of identical wormeaten huts were laid out like carelessly aligned domino tiles. Every now and then there was the tinted light from a lantern in a doorway and the smell of tea brewing, and Cí could see the ghostly outlines of peasants on their way to the fields. But the village was still mostly asleep; the only noise was the occasional wailing dog.

It was dawn when he reached Sergeant Bao-Pao’s residence.

Judge Feng was on the porch, dressed in a jet-black gown that complemented his cap. Though stone-faced, he drummed his fingers impatiently. After the usual reverences, Cí thanked him again.

“I’m only going to take a quick look; don’t get your hopes up. And don’t look at me like that,” he said, seeing Cí’s disappointment. “I’m out of my jurisdiction, and you know I haven’t been taking on any criminal work lately. And don’t be so impatient. This is a small place. Finding the culprit will be as simple as shaking a stone out of your shoe.”

Cí followed the judge to an annex where his personal assistant, a silent man with traces of Mongol in him, kept watch. Sergeant Bao-Pao was inside, along with Shang’s widow and sons—and Shang’s corpse. Seeing it, Cí couldn’t help but retch. The family had positioned it on a wooden chair as if Shang were still alive, the body upright and the head stitched to the neck with reeds. Despite the fact he had been washed, perfumed, and dressed, he still resembled a bloody scarecrow. Judge Feng paid his respects to the family and asked their permission to inspect the body, which the eldest son granted.

“Remember what you have to do?” Feng asked Cí as he approached the body.

Cí remembered perfectly well. He took a sheet of paper, an inkstone, and his best brush from his bag. Then he sat on the floor next to the corpse. Feng, commenting that it was unfortunate they’d already washed the corpse, came closer and began his work.

“I, Judge Feng, in this, the twenty-second moon of the month of the Lotus, in the second year of the era of Kaixi and the fourteenth of the reign of our beloved Ningzong, Heaven’s Son and honored emperor of the Tsong dynasty, with the relevant family authorization, undertake the preliminary investigation, auxiliary to that which should be carried out no less than four hours after the notice of death to the magistrate of the Jianningfu Prefecture. In the presence of Cheng Li, the deceased’s eldest son; the widow, Mrs. Li; and the two other male children, Ze and Xin; as well as Bao-Pao, the local sergeant; and my assistant Cí as witness.”

Cí noted down the dictation, repeating out loud each of Feng’s words.

Feng continued, “The deceased, name Shang Li, son and grandson of Li. According to his eldest son, fifty-eight years of age at the time of death. Accountant, farmworker, carpenter. Last seen the day before yesterday, midday, having attended to his work in Bao-Pao’s warehouse, where we are now. His son declares that the deceased did not appear to have been ill, showed only the normal signs of aging, and had no known enemies.”

Feng looked over to the son, who confirmed the facts, and then Feng asked Cí to recite his notes.

“Due to an oversight by his family,” continued Feng disapprovingly, “the body has already been washed and clothed. They have confirmed that when it was brought to them, the body had no wounds other than the large cut that separated the head from the body—undoubtedly the cause of death. The mouth is exaggeratedly wide open, and”—he tried, unsuccessfully, to shut it—“there is rigidity in the jaw.”

“Aren’t you going to undress it?” Cí asked, surprised.

“That won’t be necessary,” Feng said, pointing to the neck cut and waiting for Cí to answer.

“Double cut?” suggested Cí.

“Double cut, the same as with pigs when they’re bled out…”

Cí leaned forward to look at the wound. At the front, where the Adam’s apple would have been, there was a clean, horizontal notch. Then the cut grew wider and showed teeth marks like those of a slaughterhouse handsaw. He was about to say something when Feng asked him to relate the circumstances in which he had found the body. Cí did so with as much detail as he could remember.

When he finished, the judge gave him a severe look.

“And the cloth?”

“The cloth?”

How could I have forgotten?

“You disappoint me, Cí, something you never used to do.” The judge was quiet for a moment. “As you should already know, the open mouth is not that of someone crying out for help or in pain; if it had been either, the mouth would have shut with the loosening of the muscles that follows death. An object must have been introduced into the mouth before or immediately following the death and must have remained there until the muscles seized up. With respect to the type of object, I presume—noticing the bloody threads still between the teeth—we are talking about some kind of linen cloth.”

The reproach hurt Cí. A year earlier he would never have made that sort of mistake, but he was out of practice. He rummaged in his jacket pocket.

“I meant to give it to you,” he apologized, handing over the carefully folded piece of material. Now it was Feng’s turn to examine it carefully; the material was gray, stained with dried blood, and about the size of a head scarf. The judge tagged it as evidence.

“Conclude the notes and put my stamp on it. Then make a copy for the magistrate when he comes.”

Feng bid farewell to the others and left the annex. It was raining again. Cí hurried after him and caught up just as they reached the Bao-Pao residence.

“The documents…” stammered Cí.

“Leave them over there on the night table.”

“Judge Feng, I—”

“Don’t worry yourself, Cí. When I was your age I couldn’t tell the difference between a murder by crossbow and one by hanging.”

Cí felt sure the judge was only saying this to make him feel better.

He watched the judge as he organized his certificates. Cí wanted to have even half Feng’s wisdom, decency, and knowledge. He wanted Feng as his teacher again, but there was no chance of that as long as he was trapped in this village. He had no idea how to get out. When Feng put the last piece of paper away, Cí asked about his father’s taking his old job back, but the judge shook his head resignedly.

“That’s between your father and me.”

Cí moved hesitantly among Feng’s possessions. “We talked about it last night and he told me… The thing is, I thought we’d be coming back to Lin’an, but…”

Cí was on the edge of tears. The older man took a deep breath and placed a hand on Cí’s shoulder. “Cí, I don’t know if I should tell you this—”


“All right, but you must promise to keep it to yourself.” Cí nodded, and Feng collapsed into a chair. “I only made this trip on account of your family. Your father wrote to me a few months ago communicating his intention to take up his post again, but now that I’ve made the trip to see him, he won’t hear of it. I tried to insist; I offered him a comfortable job with a good wage; I even offered him a house in the capital. But he refused, and I have no idea why.”

“Why can’t you take me, though? If it’s about forgetting the cloth, I promise I’ll work hard. I’ll work myself to the bone if I have to; I won’t shame you again! I—”

“Truly, Cí, the problem is not you. You know how highly I think of you. You’re loyal, and I’d be more than pleased to have you back as my assistant. I said the same to your father; I talked about your prospects. He won’t budge. I’m truly sorry.”

Cí didn’t know what to say.

There was a clap of thunder in the distance. Feng slapped Cí on the back.

“I had big plans for you, Cí. I even reserved you a place at the university.”

“Imperial University?” Cí was wide-eyed; this was his dream.

“Your father didn’t tell you? I thought he would have.”

Cí thought his legs might collapse. He felt utterly cheated.

Copyright © 2013 by Antonio Garrido.

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A native of Spain and a former educator and industrial engineer, Antonio Garrido has received acclaim for the darkly compelling storytelling and nuanced historical details that shape his novel The Corpse Reader. This fictionalized account of the early life of Song Cí, the Chinese founding father of forensic science, represents the author’s years of research into cultural, social, legal, and political aspects of life in the Tsong Dynasty, as well as his extensive study of Song Cí’s own five-volume treatise on forensics. In 2012, The Corpse Reader received the Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain (Premio Internacional de Novela Histórica Ciudad de Zaragoza). Garrido’s previous novel, La Escriba, was published in 2008. He resides in Valencia, Spain.

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