Former state pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy has been a storyteller throughout her career. In court, it was how she got her message through to jurors, so they understood what had happened to the person at the centre of a crime. Her memoir, Beyond the Tape (2020), was peppered with tales of cases she’d encountered over her 20-year career in Ireland. Her latest story, though, is a work of fiction.
Body of Truth, Cassidy’s debut crime novel, features forensic pathologist Terry O’Brien, who’s moved from her home in Glasgow to Dublin to take up a post in the Office of the State Pathologist. Yes, there are echoes of Cassidy’s own experience in the set-up, but O’Brien gets to go where no real life pathologist ever could; she investigates murders. So was it fun to step over that demarcation line?
“It was. Because I’ve never been able to do it and I’ve always been very careful not to.” Cassidy sips water in the Merrion Hotel bar, winter sun flooding in through Georgian windows, catching her glass, an open fire warming the room. She’s just flown in from London, where she moved with her husband to be near their two adult children, and will spend the next few days on book promotion.
“‘I used to always say ‘could we not have case conferences and we could all go, and I could find out what the rest of you are up to and make sure you’re doing what you should be doing?’,” she says. “So it was really nice to go ‘this is what I would have liked to have said to somebody sometimes’.”
Though she’s consulted for many crime writers, it hadn’t occurred to her to write a novel. She describes herself as a “reluctant writer”. Her memoir was commissioned when she announced her retirement as State pathologist in 2018, after 15 years of service. It sold well and Hachette Ireland suggested she try fiction. Cassidy, who’s happy to have a go when offered new opportunities – she’s had her own TV series, Dr Cassidy’s Casebook, and a stint on Dancing with the Stars – agreed to “give it a shot”.
“I said ‘if it’s absolute rubbish just tell me’ ... I will not go weeping away thinking my life’s at an end just because somebody said my book was rubbish. If they told me I was a rubbish forensic pathologist, I would be very upset.”
The book is certainly not “rubbish”; it’s a pacy and entertaining read with a witty protagonist, full of gumption. “Don’t be such a jessie,” O’Brien tells her love interest, detective chief inspector John Fraser. And when he’s too polite, she calls him “Mr Darcy”. She tells another friend, Michael Flynn, a forensic scientist, not to be “so precious”. There’s no room for over-sensitivity in her life. Toughness and strength of character are required, as they are for real life pathologists.
“You have to have a certain personality, a very odd personality,” Cassidy laughs. The 67-year-old, originally from Rutherglen in Glasgow, studied medicine there and expected to “end up as a GP”. But she found she was better with deceased patients than live ones, and soon became fascinated with forensic pathology.
“You have to be able to cope with it and that’s maybe where the strength comes in. You can deal with the situations and it doesn’t affect you, you don’t take it home, you can’t.”
Has she ever considered counselling?
“I think if you need counselling you shouldn’t be there, in pathology, because that’s what you do, you just have to be able to cope with the situations that you deal with.”
The team was offered the service once, Cassidy says.
“They sent some poor counsellor in to see us all. Oh good lord the poor woman, she’s probably still trying to get over it.”
But there is support in the form of a network of pathologists in Ireland and the UK. What do they talk about when they get together?
“We’re like fishermen, we’re like ‘well you won’t believe what I saw’ ... that’s all we know, so we swap stories about cases.”
Is there any talk of serial killers?
“As a forensic pathologist you’re always looking out for it,” she says. “I remember in Glasgow we had a series of prostitute deaths and we wondered ... but it was just the usual, women killed by men, but not the same man.”
There’s never been evidence of a serial killer here, Cassidy says.
“You’re looking for patterns, that’s all we work on, patterns of injuries, patterns of whatever, so we’ve never really seen a pattern emerging here.”
She acknowledges theories about women who went missing in the 1990s.
“People think there’s somebody out there who’s done all of that and there may well be, but none of us know, it’s all speculation.”
There are far more women killed by someone close to them; 87 per cent of 264 femicide victims since 1996 knew their murderer, according to Women’s Aid data.
“It’s the man in your bed, not the man under your bed you should be worried about,” Cassidy says.
She talks about the court system, giving evidence, and how barristers try to influence findings. The Molly and Thomas Martens manslaughter case comes up, and an Irish postmortem report used by lawyers in mitigation. The Martens’ team had suggested the victim, Irishman Jason Corbett, could have murdered his first wife, Mags Fitzpatrick, by strangulation, though the report found she’d died of an asthma attack.
“If I was the pathologist back here, I’d be pretty miffed about the whole thing,” Cassidy says. The Irish report, she assumes, was written by a hospital pathologist, the person who carries out postmortems when there is nothing suspicious about a death. A forensic pathologist will note the condition of organs etc, while a hospital pathologist will only search for cause of death.
“We do that because we know that somebody [in court] can pick that up and say ‘you didn’t mention that therefore it’s still possible’, whereas the hospital pathologist is very different. They are looking for a cause of death, so when they find it [an organ] is normal, they say ‘that’s normal I don’t need to mention it’. So I understand that process, but it means that some clever clogs can pick that up and go ‘you obviously didn’t look at that’. And we know they did and that’s not nice.”
Cassidy says forensic reports are peer reviewed before being finalised, which can help highlight any issues.
“It used to be, people would use these experts [in Irish court] if it suited them and we all knew a load of baloney was coming out of their mouth,” she says. “I think now in the UK and Ireland most of the experts are pretty straight. I’ve come across some dubious ones in the past, but I think that’s been weeded out.”
For years, Cassidy made regular appearances in the media and became a role model for women interested in science. Asked if she considered herself a feminist, she shrugs.
“I don’t see myself as a ‘feminist feminist’, I just believe in equality and fairness for everyone,” she says. “I’ve not really thought of myself as championing women, but I can understand how me doing what I did would mean that girls and women would look and think ‘maybe I will consider that’.”
It may be no coincidence that the Office of the State Pathologist now has an all-female team of consultants.
Cassidy’s never seen herself as a female forensic pathologist, only a forensic pathologist.
“I don’t look for any concessions because I’m a female. I’m just there to do the job and if I can’t hack it and I can’t climb fences, even if it is in my stilettos, you know I shouldn’t be there.”
Asked whether she’d follow the same career if she was a student now, she says probably not, because there have been so many changes. The forensic scientist is now “the most important person in the room”.
“I loved every minute of my working life, I wouldn’t change that, but if I was starting now I’d be looking at science and technology.”
In the future, postmortems may be replaced with virtopsies, she says, with bodies examined using scanned images such as CT, instead of being cut open. That method was already used to a limited extent during Covid.
“So the pathologist may not be the pathologist I knew. It will be a hybrid, a radiologist/pathologist.”
Cassidy will continue to appear in Irish courts until all the cases she’s been involved in have been processed. And given her two-book deal with Hachette, she’ll complete at least one more O’Brien novel. She writes long hand at first draft, types with two fingers and doesn’t plot ahead.
“Which is how I work in life anyway. I’ve never had a game plan, things just happen and I think ‘oh yeah, that sounds interesting, let’s go and do that for a while’.”
Body of Truth by Marie Cassidy is published by Hachette Books Ireland