Enjoy the true stories in Elizabeth Greenwood’s Playing Dead, but don’t expect deep insights

It all began with a conversation about student loans. Like many recent graduates, American author Elizabeth Greenwood was wondering how to get herself out of debt. She considered options both fanciful (get rich through giving inspiring TedTalks) and desperate (run off to Belize). Then a colleague suggested, presumably in jest, that it might be easier just to fake her own death.

Greenwood headed straight for Google. What she found stripped her of any fanciful, romantic notions of disappearing into the mist. These search results form the opening salvos of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. The book widens into a complex investigation encompassing black market morgues, faked death certificates and rogues aplenty. A niche industry devoted to one thing: making people disappear.

Snooky, Bong & a Canoe Man

Greenwood uses colorful connections to demonstrate how the industry works – notably Philippine fixers Mr. Clean and Mr. Bean, also known as Snooky and Bong, who help the author to get her very own forged death certificate, and also offer useful advice like how to kill someone with a ballpoint pen.

Frank Ahern, who once made his living locating fugitives, explains how he now helps to make people disappear using techniques including spreading misinformation online. He says he mostly works with women who have been victims of domestic violence. At the other end of the scale is the so-called Canoe Man, Briton John Darwin, who faked his own death for the money. He was eventually jailed after being discovered living in the family home with his wife.

These anecdotes and interviews are embellished by the author’s own narrative, as she explores the process of faking her own demise. She winds up at the Manila airport, clutching the death certificate bearing her name, agonizing over the questions that must haunt all those who contemplate this desperate act.

Could she really leave all those relationships behind? All the small actions that make up the individual? Is it worth all the trouble and heartache – not only for herself, but also for her loved ones?

Long live the king… of pop

playing dead
“Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud”
by Elizabeth Greenwood
Simon & Schuster (Aug 2016)
272 pp.
€21.88 // Cover courtesy of publisher

Greenwood prefers not to dwell on evidence from psychological profiles and legal trials. Perhaps she was concerned that Playing Dead might otherwise become a handbook for illegal activities. But it means the book lacks substance, detail – and ultimately weight.

And there are missteps in tone. A whole chapter is devoted to the idea that Michael Jackson might have faked his own death and  sits uneasily with the rest of the book, which is populated by shattered relationships and cautionary tales.

However, what Playing Dead lacks in rigorous analysis, it makes up for in quirky insights and its tongue-in-cheek tone. The author relays in breezy fashion the story of Bernie Wint, who had lived under an assumed name for 20 years and was only found out after being stopped for not having a bulb for his license plate. Apparently many of the disappeared are only caught after similarly trivial traffic violations.

Her advice: “And for the love of God, don’t drive if you are supposed to be dead.  Ditch the car.”