The Working Stiffs: How We Get Our Ideas
by Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
Judy: I do autopsies in a big city medical examiner morgue. The murder mystery ideas come strolling through the door most every day!
T.J.: Take the plot of First Cut, our debut novel. The seed for the story came from an actual homicide, where Judy got called out to the death scene. The decedent was a petty thief. He jacked a laptop off a man sitting in a café—and the robbery victim pulled out a gun. He shot the thief a bunch of times, in front of witnesses and under security cameras, took the computer out of his dead hands, and walked away.
Judy: I was there to answer questions from the homicide detectives about the gunshot wound trajectories, but all I kept thinking was, “what was so important on that laptop that someone would kill over it?” The book’s story took off from that mystery.
T.J.: You see a lot of overdoses, too. Those came in handy for First Cut.
Judy: Fatal drug overdoses are fascinating to me, because they can be any of several manners of death. When a poison is self-ingested, it could be a suicide or an accident. If it is administered by another person, it could be a homicide. It’s the same cause of death—a poisoning—but the actions people take behind that poisoning might be accidental, intentional, or nefarious. It’s my job to make that call. The police only get involved when we are certain the case is a homicide.
T.J: And even then you can’t always convince them. The tension between the determination of the medical examiner and the findings the police can make for some juicy conflict.
Judy: Just like the tension between the district attorney trying a case and the medical examiner who gets called as a witness. Trial lawyers have to build their cases based on what the witnesses are claiming, but if those witnesses are lying—or just mistaken—their testimony might not comport with the ME’s physical findings from the autopsy.
T.J.: So that’s how we work. Judy brings these stories home and we toss them around until we’ve come up with the case-based outlines for a murder plot. She gives me the story and I work to fashion it into the narrative structure of the American noir detective novel—our corner of the genre-fiction world. When I get stuck, we talk out additional scenarios from her long experience in forensic investigation, and the plot gains a new twist. She never lets me cut corners with the science, though!
Judy: It can be really satisfying—because, unlike in real life, we get to determine the outcome of the cases and the fates of the characters. We take poetic license in the narrative, but we always write our mysteries with scientific rigor, too. It’s a lot of fun!
A young rookie medical examiner. A suspicious case. An underworld plot only she saw coming.
From the New York Times bestselling authors of Working Stiff
For San Francisco’s newest medical examiner, Dr. Jessie Teska, it was supposed to be a fresh start. A new job in a new city. A way to escape her own dark past.
Instead she faces a chilling discovery when an opioid-overdose case contains hints of something more sinister. Jessie’s superiors urge her to close the case, but as more bodies land on her autopsy table, she uncovers a constellation of deaths that point to an elaborate plot involving drug dealers and Bitcoin brokers.
Drawing on her real-life experiences as a forensics expert, Judy Melinek teams up with husband T.J. Mitchell to deliver the most exhilarating mystery of the year. Autopsy means “see for yourself,” and Jessie Teska won’t stop until she has seen it all—even if it means that the next corpse on the table could be her own.
Bio: The Working Stiffs are the married writing team of forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek and writer T.J. Mitchell. They are coauthors of the New York Times bestselling memoir Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (Scribner, 2014), and the new novel First Cut, the debut in a forensic detective series from Hanover Square Press. Its sequel, Aftershock, is coming in February, 2021. You can follow the Working Stiffs on Twitter @drjudymelinek and @TJMitchellWS, and Facebook/DrWorkingStiff.