'Secret Remains': Author's crime novels inspired by her medical examiner father

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

As the daughter of a medical examiner, author Jennifer Graeser Dornbush has a greater appreciation for life after being exposed to death on a regular basis.

“As odd and macabre as it could sometimes be, a regular dose of death fast-tracked me with lessons that take most people a lifetime to learn – be grateful for each day, live fully in it, be kind to one another, spread no ill will, hold no grudges, and burn no bridges because you may not have tomorrow to fix it,” said Dornbush.

Growing up in Fremont – located in Newaygo County on the western side of Michigan –  Dornbush and her two younger sisters, Melanie and Amy, would accompany their father, Dr. Ronald Graeser, on death investigations. Dornbush joined him for the first time when she was 8.

“There was an airplane fatality – a twin-engine crash – where three people died. The next day, (Melanie and I) went with him out in the field ... He was like, ‘Look on the ground and tell me if you see anything unusual.’ We ended up finding some brain matter and pieces of skull. He explained to us what the brain does. It was an anatomy lesson more than anything,” she recalled.
According to Dornbush, the downstairs of her childhood home was her father’s office. He kept tissue samples in a freezer next to the frozen food. Vials of blood sat next to six-packs of pop in the refrigerator. She and her sisters even transported corpses in the family Suburban, as well as helped him with paperwork and other administrative jobs. 

“Dinnertime conversations was always about the case of the day. He’d always quiz us: ‘Why did this person die? How do you think this person died?’ It was always like a game of ‘Clue,’” she said. “When he wanted to warn us that ‘smoking kills,’ he (brought) home a set of lungs in a jar of formaldehyde from an autopsy of a man who died of lung cancer.”

Dornbush extrapolated the experiences of her unique childhood onto the written page with her character Dr. Emily Hartford. Emily is the protagonist of two novels in “The Coroner’s Daughter” series of mysteries occurring in the fictional town of Freeport, MI (a thinly-veiled version of Fremont). The second novel in the series, “Secret Remains” (Crooked Lane Books $26.99), was recently released.

“The character of Emily is a composite of the three of us,” said Dornbush. “She’s on the brink of a successful career as a doctor, but there’s these shadows from her past she’s been ignoring and now must come home to the world she left as a teenager and loved as teenager, but was ripped apart because of this horrible thing that happened with her mother’s death.”

In “The Coroner,” Emily, a surgical resident in Chicago, returns to Freeport for the first time in 12 years after her estranged father, Dr. Robert Hartford, the town M.E., suffers a heart attack.

There, she reunites with old high school flame, Nick Larson, who’s now the sheriff. She assists Nick on a murder investigation involving a senator’s daughter, filling in as the de facto M.E. while her dad recuperates. During her return, Emily finds herself questioning everything, including her engagement to Dr. Brandon Taylor, a surgeon who comes from a very affluent family in Chicago.

“Secret Remains” occurs immediately after the events of “The Coroner.” Emily is forced to stay in Freeport longer than expected. Once again, she’s caught up in another murder case. This time, it’s a cold case from 10 years ago where the bones of a long-missing high school student named Sandi Parkman are unearthed. To make this case personal, Sandi’s remains are found with Nick’s varsity jacket. Nick was the last person to see Sandi before she disappeared, and now Freeport’s top cop is the prime suspect.

“I have a billion ideas rolling around in my mind based on the hundreds of cases I saw in our house. Everything is a composite of actual things and then you fictionalize them and it grows the story – that’s where the magic happens,” said Dornbush. “The idea I wanted was for Nick to be in trouble, to have some culpability in this, and I wanted to bring it to the point that he might have done this. I also wanted to play on the fact that the sin of omission is still a sin. When you read the book, there was a cover-up going on with this girl. Even Nick knew about it when they were all in high school and nobody said anything.”

According to Dornbush, the difference between Emily and Nick is Emily couldn’t leave Freeport fast enough. However, Nick liked Freeport and decided to remain there. In fact, Dornbush modeled Nick after Josh Lucas’ character in 2002’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” starring Reese Witherspoon.

“Nick’s the guy who stays in his small town and makes good,” said Dornbush. “There’s nothing wrong with it. We see so many examples of ‘Oh, living in a small town’s bad. I want to run from our small town.’ Nick’s the kind of guy who’s like, ‘I like it here. It’s a good place, there’s good people here, and I can thrive here.’ He appreciates it for what it is. I wanted to show that kind of a character.”

There’s also a love triangle between Emily, Nick, and Brandon in “The Coroner.” In “Secret Remains,” a new player is vying for Emily affections: Dr. Charles Payton, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Michigan.

“I wanted her to have had a relationship with Nick (but because of her mother’s death), she doesn’t know how to handle it and runs from it. I wanted Nick to be the grounded guy who is the right fit for her, who can stand up to her, and also challenge her, and yet love her for who she is, which is the best kind of relationship,” said Dornbush. “I also wanted to play around with the idea that Nick’s a good guy but isn’t perfect ... He has a few ghosts in his past, too.”

There will be a third book in “The Coroner’s Daughter” series, occurring two years after “Secret Remains.” Emily will return to Freeport to investigate a case involving the Sailor Slayer, a notorious serial killer.

The author spoke about why she never followed in her father’s footsteps and went into medicine.

“I always knew I was gonna be a writer since I was a young girl, about 4-5. I have always been a storyteller,” she said. “I have a great love for science and medicine, but I’m not cut out to practice in that field. I love that world, I love studying that world, I love the people in that world – they’re very courageous and dedicated. However, to do it day in, day out, I’m just not built that way; I’m a storyteller.”

An alumna of Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, Dornbush earned her bachelor’s degree in English and communication arts from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill. She has her master’s degree in rhetoric from DePaul University in Chicago. In addition, she has certifications from the Forensic Science Academy in Los Angeles and the FBI Citizens Academy.

Throughout her 20s, Dornbush worked as a journalist, publicist, and teacher. When she turned 29, she decided she wanted to write screenplays, so she moved to Hollywood. 

“It’s been a long, competitive journey,” she said.

In her 18 years writing screenplays, only one was actually turned into a movie: 2018’s “God Bless the Broken Road,” which chronicles the story of a young mother who loses her husband in Afghanistan and struggles to raise their child alone. Dornbush and her agent pitched it as a novel to increase the exposure and marketability of the movie. It was published by Simon & Schuster in 2017, coming out a year before the movie did.

In fact, “The Coroner” was originally a script. Dornbush turned it into a novel “out of pure frustration,” she admitted with a laugh.

“Writers make careers out of screenplays that never get made (but they get paid), so that’s why I wrote the damn novel,” she explained. “I had these scripts that weren’t getting any traction. They were good stories. A lot of things that get in made in Hollywood – 80 percent – are from previous (intellectual property) like books. I decided I’m gonna turn this into a novel and get it out. I took my frustration and made it into a book. I’m glad I did.”

According to Dornbush, what makes “The Coroner’s Daughter” series stand out is accuracy.

“You can be accurate and still maintain entertainment value,” explained Dornbush. “I think a lot of the times the misconception is that you have to skew accuracy at the expense of entertainment. I think that is completely false. I actually think that truth is stranger than fiction – you can really lean into accuracy to make your story more entertaining and give it more twists and turns than if you make things up and don’t bother doing the research.”

Dornbush noted she wants to portray death in a humane way – that’s how she and her family saw it at their home in Fremont. While death was scientific and forensic, it was also closely connected to the community.

“The people who died were very important to my dad,” she said. “As a result, it became important to us. He was very meticulous in figuring out how somebody died so he could help the family and the community. If it was a malicious death, then the community needed protection from whoever did it. If it was a death related to a medical condition, he made sure the family knew that, so they’d take care of their own health. It was much deeper than signing a death certificate and getting a paycheck. It wasn’t just a cold, sterile county office. Emily’s very committed to the humanity of her job even though it’s all about death.”

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