Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood

GreenwoodPlayingDeadNarrator: Arden Hammersmith

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)

Length: 7 hours 55 minutes

Author’s Page

The question, is it possible to fake your own death in the 21st century, begs an answer and Elizabeth Greenwood delivers! This was a very interesting book and I feel a tad smarter for having read it.

The author was 27 when she first started pondering if she could fake her own death in order to get out of crushing debt (obtained in the pursuit of her education). That initial, mostly-innocent question lead her to dig deeper as she found real-life examples of people who did just that and got away with it, at least for a time. Sam Israel is our first example. He was a hedge fund manager who was indicted for a Ponzi scheme. He faked his suicide to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. It was only a few years before he was caught. His faked suicide involved ‘drowning’, which is apparently always under suspicion of being possible death fraud if no body is recovered. Hear that, Sherlock?

Frank Ahearn, who co-wrote How to Disappear with Eileen C. Horan, was a most interesting character in this non-fiction. He used to be a skip tracer and later became a consultant on how to disappear properly. This part of the book makes a distinction between faking one’s own death and simply disappearing. The latter is simpler and safer in several regards. If someone files for death insurance payout or a death certificate, then insurance companies and officials may well get involved to verify that one is truly dead. If you simply want to disappear, then often there are no officials of any kind looking into it. Ahearn pops in and out of the book as the author had many interesting conversations with him and I quite enjoyed his take on things.

Private investigator Steve Rambam, inspiration for a character in Kinky Firedman’s mystery novels, makes an appearance in this book. He’s been in the business of tracking people down for decades and he provides a different view than Ahearn on the subjects of disappearing and death fraud. While his sections weren’t as entertaining as some others, he did provide some good sense info and kept the author grounded in what is possible.

For me, the oddest section was on the group of Michael Jackson fans who truly believe he faked his own death and plans to return to the public eye at some point. The author did a great job of both expressing her skepticism but also respecting the ardor of these fans. Of course, fans claiming a celebrity’s death was faked is nothing new but it was interesting to see how grounded these fans were – they hunted for clues in documents and photos instead of simply pulling aliens into the mix.

Traveling to England, the author interviews the Canoe Man, John Darwin. He successfully faked his own death for five years before reemerging, initially claiming amnesia. This case really brought home what a faked death can do to family and friends. Also, it’s a fine example of lack of planning when it comes to the long haul.

Finally, at the end of the book we venture with the author to the Philippines to meet Snookie and Bong, professionals of many jobs. They’re bodyguards, personal safety trainers, and fixers. They were the most entertaining part of the book, perhaps because their everyday life is so very different from mine.

Even if you’re not interested in disappearing or faking your suicide, this is a very entertaining book. Is it morally wrong to fake your death? Probably. Is it illegal to simply disappear, never filing a death certificate? In many cases, no. Is this a fascinating subject? Yes!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

The Narration: Arden Hammersmith (which is a very cool name!) was a good fit for this book. She did do character voices for the various people the author  interviewed. She also sounded interested in the subject herself, never dropping into a monotone. There were little touches of emotion here and there and she did a good job of imbuing the narration with those emotions. 

What I Liked: Very interesting subject; the author does a good job showing the difference in faking a suicide versus simply disappearing; the Canoe Man and his randy habits; celebrities and their faked deaths; the Philippines and it’s cottage-house industry – faking the death of strangers.

What I Disliked: Nothing –  very fun book!

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