As the back cover blurb of this book states, 'suicide is an ageless
concern that has been with us as long as man has existed.' Suicide has also
been the subject of a good deal of writing; fiction and non-fiction. Any new
work then, has to earn its place by making some unique contribution to the
field. The focus of Holmes and Holmes's Suicide.
Theory, Practice, and Investigation is broad, covering history, theory,
epidemiology, and suicide in special populations. But what distinguishes this
book is its added focus on analysis of suicide notes, and discussion of
coronial investigations. The authors are college professors, and although there
is nothing in the book stating exactly their areas of academic interest, it is
apparent that both work in the area of criminal justice. This interest is
evident throughout the book that, unusually for a book on suicide contains
photographs of suicide notes and suicide and murder victims. The book combines
social, clinical and legal perspectives, something the authors see as lacking
in the field. While the broad scope of the book means that it will have some
appeal to a wide range of professionals, it also means the analysis of any one
issue is necessarily limited.
The book is brief, only 150 pages of text, divided into 11 chapters, so
each aspect is treated fairly lightly. The many photographs and transcribed
suicide notes further limits the room available for analysis. The first chapter
provides a background of suicide in the United States, and the second a broader
historical background. These chapters are a sound enough background, although
it would have improved the flow of the book to have the US figures follow the
historical background rather than the reverse. In the third chapter the authors
explore theory of suicide, and their particular preference is for Durkheim's 19th
century formulation. There is much that is problematic in Durkheim's scientific
rationalism, in particular his assertion that societies possessed an organic
essence independently of their individual members. This assertion allowed
Durkheim to suggest a form of social influence that determined certain effects,
such as a rate of voluntary deaths in particular societies. For Durkheim, these
were social facts, phenomena
with an existence in and of themselves, not bound to the actions of
individuals. Durkheim's work was
significant in establishing a scientific discipline of sociology as well for
the study of suicide, but it needs to be tempered with an awareness of a range
of sociological theories of suicide. In fairness to Holmes and Holmes their
book is not intended as a critical review of theory, and they point out that
students need to cast a wider net in considering explanations of suicide. The
remainder of chapter three addresses biological and psychological theories.
The next three chapters are devoted to special populations: youth, the
elderly and intimates. Reflecting the criminal justice background of the
authors, the chapter on intimates includes discussion on violence, and includes
murder/suicide. This chapter moves the focus of the book to the post mortem
investigation of suicide, a focus continued in the following chapter on
analysis of suicide notes. Intriguing as suicide notes are, the authors
acknowledge that they are found in only 15% of cases. They are likely
therefore, to provide an unrepresentative subset of suicides, and so any
interpretation to the wider issue of suicide must be made with caution. The
chapter on atypical suicides covers topic such as euthanasia and group suicide
amongst cults such as Heavens Gate. A discussion of terrorism gives this
chapter a very contemporary flavor, although that section is too brief to offer
any new insights. The chapter on investigation of suicide will be of less
interest to health professionals, as it covers forensic issues that are not
commonly encountered in clinical practice. The chapter on depression, drugs and
alcohol is rather slight, and seems padded with illustrations and tables. There
are also a number of generalizations such as 'studies show', and the authors
refer to 'excessive abuse', leaving readers to wonder what is an acceptable
level of abuse. The final chapter is titled 'Suicide and the future', but the
future is not addressed. Instead there is a summary of what has been covered in
the book and a concluding section on interventions.
Overall, this book will be of interest to undergraduates, and to lay
people who are looking for a broad introduction to the topic of suicide. It is
of particular interest to the US context. Legal and health professionals and
graduate students of suicide will find the book limited, and would be likely to
find the topic better covered in publications focused on their specific
2006 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien, M Phil, is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the
University of Auckland, New Zealand:
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