Medical Examiner's Mystery Reading Challenge

Frequent Autopsy Questions (FAQ)


  1. Why do we need a name when you don't ask for it on the Death Certificate? This is just a rule-of-thumb to see if the character is significant to the story. We don't want someone to reference, say, an airplane crash and claim 100 deaths. How much of a name is needed is a bit subjective, but the intent is that the name used be sufficient to identify a specific person throughout the story.

    Names are not reported on the Death Certificate, as it is a summary of the deaths in the story, and some stories have lots of deaths. The challenge should be fun and not become a record-keeping burden.

  2. Partial names: When you say a victim has to be named does it have to be their full name? Can just a first or last name work? Generally, either a first name or a last name is sufficient. That is enough to identify them throughout the story. See the table below of examples.

    Examples of acceptable names Examples of non-acceptable names
    Priscilla Smith
    Mrs. Smith
    Baby Smith (see #3 above)
    Jeeves (servants usually use one name)
    Inspector Garfield (title+name)
    Lady Elaine (title+name)
    Lord Grosvenor (title+name)
    Aunt Dorothy (title+name)
    Prisoner 64201
    Lightning Jim (nickname)
    Scarface (nickname)
    Mister, sir, ma'am  (title alone w/o name)
    Inspector (title alone w/o name)
    George's aunt (he could have many!)
    Man in the black coat (vague)

  3. Unnamed babies: Does a baby dying before he is named count? Or an unborn child? The rules allow one name, first OR last, to be sufficient (see above question). Can you deduce a last name from the parents in the story? If so "Baby Smith" would count as it has a last name. - RM


  1. What deaths count? Any death in which you can cite a name and a cause of death. Here are some examples:

    • Sophia was convicted of shooting her barista, Arabica Simpson, for messing up her coffee order. - COUNTS, NAMED and CAUSE OF DEATH cited

    • While in the Chicago mob, Dwayne Cummerbund drowned 7 guys in the bay for messing up his alibi.- DOES NOT COUNT (CAUSE OF DEATH cited, but victims not named)

    • He murdered his wife's asthmatic lover, Elmont Q. Thorpmeister III for messing up their relationship. - DOES NOT COUNT (NAMED, but no CAUSE OF DEATH cited).

  2. Do only murders count? - No, that would lead to big time layoffs in the M.E. office. Anyone who winds up in the morgue, whether from murder, accident, natural cause, suicide, old age, or being stuffed up a chimney by an orangutan - and has a name - needs a toe tag.

  3. Suicide: How do we treat a suicide? Treat suicides as any other death, and report the cause ... poison, shot, fall, etc. In real life, Medical Examiners must make two findings: cause of death (shot, stab, etc.), and manner of death (suicide, homicide, natural, etc.). I figured that was a bit too much to ask for the challenge so the challenge only asks for a cause.

    Many times an author will have a murderer take the easy way out (suicide) at the end of the story, which saves them the trouble of writing about an arrest and prosecution of the criminal, and the reader would likely lose interest once the murderer is identified anyway. .This is a common ending in the Philo Vance novels by S. S. Van Dine as well, you can pretty much expect it to occur at the end. He was criticized for overusing it.

  4. Accidental death: Suppose the death is not intended but the man got involved in a fight, got pushed, hit his head and died. Does it count? Yes, that counts, it is part of the plot. The body still showed up in your morgue and needs a toe tag.

  5. Executions: In many mysteries we find a line or two, in the end, regarding the fate of the villains: So and so was given life-imprisonment, So and so was executed etc. Do we then issue a toe-tag for those executed too? Certainly, if you have a body and a name, you can issue a Toe Tag. Not for the life imprisoned, though. Patience, grasshopper.

  6. Death from days gone by: A death takes place in the past and has little bearing on the case being investigated in the present, does that count? A robbery took place, a man was shot dead as the robbers escaped, only to be caught and imprisoned. The mystery mainly deals with the recovery of the stolen goods, after a decade. Long-ago deaths are referred to frequently. You can report them if you have a name and a cause of death.

  7. Resurrections: How would we count characters who die (from various means) and then come back to life by mythical means? My first mystery of the year was filled with this. I would certainly count them. They had to go through the morgue (once at least), so you get to make your autopsy notes on them as usual; even if they get resurrected later on.

  8. More than seven deaths: The form only allows 7 deaths per cause. What if we have more? Just state the number/cause in the Comments box.

  9. Deaths of non-existent people: Would you count the following? A book I have read has deaths happen in the course of the book but the final twist is that the people never actually existed. I suppose that means they wouldn't go through the morgue? I would accept these deaths as usual. All deaths in detective fiction (as opposed to True Crime) occur to people who do not really exist anyway, and in this case the only difference is that the author has admitted it! :-)

  10. Animals: Can we count an animal who is named and dies? In my book, a monkey named Cupid has been poisoned and died. It is quite central to the plot and, in fact, Cupid has had a postmortem done on him. Does Cupid (or any named animal central to a mystery plot) get to have a toe tag? Sure, it gives the M.E.s something to do on slow days! I just read Port of Seven Strangers by Kathleen Moore Knight, the story line contains a parrot who is part of the plot. He dies, and since he has a name (Lorenzo) I am counting him.

  11. Oops, no deaths: I got to the end of my book and no one died! Now what? Well, no one showed up in the morgue so you cannot count this title for the Medical Examiner challenge. The good news is that it does qualify for the Six Shooter Challenge, in which death is not a criterion (That would be a great title for a book, wouldn't it?).


  1. What's the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner?


    • are elected lay persons
    • often do not have professional training
    • determine the manner of death (suicide, homicide, accident, etc.) through an investigative process
    Medical Examiners:
    • are appointed to their position
    • have board-certification in a medical specialty
    • determine the cause of death from a medical standpoint
    National Academy of Medicine

  2. Other genres: Can you count thrillers? For example I just finished Shari Lapena's Someone We Know and there are 2 murder victims in the story and the assailant is unknown until the end- not necessarily what people define as a mystery like Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen but is Thriller a subgenre? Sure, thrillers can count! I am not sure of the definition, but I read some by Edgar Wallace and Leslie Charteris - and the murderer is known all along - it occurs as part of the story. The 'mystery' is will the murderer get caught? Thrillers, Historical Mystery, even True Crime are OK as long you have a name and a cause of death.

  3. Amazon, Goodreads, and their misguided opinions: I consider my book as a mystery/suspense book but Amazon and GoodReads doesn't. Does it count? Rule #1 says you (not Amazon or Goodreads!) decide what counts for if it is a mystery to you, it counts! Rule #1 states: You get to decide what is a 'mystery'. Traditional murder mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, romances, all are welcome.

  4. Short stories: How do we handle a book of short stories? Short stories are most welcome. If you have a bookful of short stories, you have some options on submitting them:
    • la carte: you can submit them individually. This is helpful if you are only reading one in a collection.
    • bulk: Total up all the deaths across the stories, and make one submission indicating "various" as the author.
    • divide and conquer: Submit some individually, and the rest in bulk. This is helpful if your book contains a novel or two and the remainder are short stories.

  5. Revisions: Can we edit information we have already submitted? Yes, but not directly. These challenge pages are all on my personal web site, and it is not sophisticated enough to allow direct editing. When you submit a Death Certificate form for a book, I get the form and just copy/paste the information you submitted into the web page. There's nothing automatic happening. If you wish to edit something you have already submitted, you can either 1). describe the edit in an email to me, or 2). just submit the form again; and I will change it. If I see a second form come in for a book you have already submitted, I assume it is a correction.

  6. Personal info: Can we change our profile/personal info? The only personal info that shows is the name you selected, location, photo, and links to your Goodreads profile or blog. You are in charge. They can be anything you prefer. Just email any change to me, attach any updated photo you wish to use. I do have to crop the photos down to 50 pixels wide to fit, so they can't be too complex.

  7. Wrapping up: What happens at the end of the challenge? A new challenge page for the new year will be posted. The gurneys and instruments will be cleaned and sterilized. The current year challenge page will remain online for your reference.

Any questions? Email me at Thank you for participating!

Rick MillsThe Mystillery • Revised July 20 2021