What happens when a journalist can't let go of his subject? After writing a profile about the owner of Crime Scene Cleaners, a private national company specializing in clean-up after murders, suicides, and other deaths, writer Alan Emmins relished the attention the piece got, but he was unable to shake the conviction that he'd gotten cleaner Neal Smither all wrong after shadowing him for just a few days. That meta-narrative kicks off Mop Men: Inside The World Of Crime Scene Cleaners, a gross-but-true page-turner in which Emmins returns to Crime Scene as Smither goes about the business of death.

Emmins clearly lucked out in discovering Smither in the first place. The laid-off bank employee decided to go into the cleaning business after watching the car cleanup in Pulp Fiction. He built his business through a combination of research and espionage. His willingness to be seen as "the death guy" made him a local legend, yet Emmins doesn't cast him as the Daniel Plainview of the fledgling industry: He expresses his work as protecting family members against the most gruesome reminders of mortality, and treats their messes, and his closest competitors, with almost exaggerated deference. Smither's warring natures—he plays serviceman to the grieving as a cover for his morbid whistling-in-the-face-of-death trashman duties—echo Emmins' emotions as he observes cleanups of routine suicides and "garbage houses."

Advertisement

Working on Smither's team takes a toll on Emmins, as evidenced by his near-breakdown at a restaurant where he believes he can smell the after-effects of a particularly messy job in the food. The shifting dynamic between Smither and Emmins pertains to some larger questions Mop Men doesn't fully address—it's too concerned with being both gross and engrossing. Emmins' ambivalence about Smither, and the lightness with which Smither lets himself treat the dehumanized spectacle of a crime scene, only contribute to the incongruities of this particular occupation, but they also add to the elegantly developed portrait of the man who picked it. Better Smither have to be on the scene than the rest of us.