Rarely has a debut crime novel inspired such widespread excitement. A born storyteller, Dr.Read more...
Rarely has a debut crime novel inspired such widespread excitement. A born storyteller, Dr. Kathy Reichs walks in the steps of her heroine, Dr. Temperance Brennan. She spends her days in the autopsy suite, the courtroom, the crime lab, with cops, and at exhumation sites. Often her long days turn into harrowing nights.
It's June in Montreal, and Tempe, who has left a shaky marriage back home in North Carolina to take on the challenging assignment of director of forensic anthropology for the province of Quebec, looks forward to a relaxing weekend.
First, though, she must stop at a newly uncovered burial site in the heart of the city. One look at the decomposed and decapitated corpse, stored neatly in plastic bags, tells her she'll spend the weekend in the crime lab. This is homicide of the worst kind. To begin to find some answers, Tempe must first identify the victim. Who is this person with the reddish hair and a small bone structure?
Kathy Reichs' already-busy life is about to get a whole lot busier. Her first attempt at fiction - a superb detective thriller called "Deja Dead" - was recently named a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club after an intense bidding war. Translation deals have already been inked with 15 foreign publishers. And about two weeks after we talk by phone, she will begin a whirlwind North American publicity tour to promote the just-published "Deja Dead," a book that pretty much sails over a very high bar of pre-publication hype. Not bad for someone who says she avoided college literature courses to concentrate on science.
"I'm not even thinking that far ahead," Reichs says when asked how she expects this newfound fame to change her life. It's reason for momentary alarm. By phone, Reichs is pleasant to the point of vulnerability. She pauses thoughtfully between her answers, as befits a full professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her answers themselves are unadorned and direct, as if she were being deposed in court. One imagines the fame train running right over her.
But that's not very likely. In fact, Reichs is probably at least as capable and tough-minded as her appealing fictional heroine, Temperance "Tempe" Brennan. "Professionally we are very similar," Reichs admits. "Like me, she is a professor of anthropology in the Carolinas, she goes to Montreal, she does forensic work in both places." And the work of a forensic anthropologist like Reichs is not for the squeamish.
"There is no such thing as a typical case," says Reichs, who in addition to teaching full time, investigates as many as 80 cases a year as the official forensic anthropologist for both the state of North Carolina and the province of Quebec. "It might involve identifying some bones kids find in the woods, which can turn out to be anything from animal bones, to bones from historical or prehistoric burials, to more recent human remains. It might involve establishing that a skeleton is in fact that of a person we suspect it to be. Thirty or 40 percent of my cases involve trauma analysis: looking a fracture patterns, bullet entrances and exits, or stab marks to figure out what happened to this person. I only come into a case at the request of a pathologist because a body is too decomposed, too burned, too skeletonized or mummified for a pathologist to do a normal autopsy."
In "Deja Dead," Tempe Brennan is called in under similar conditions to identify a badly decomposed body found at Le Grand Seminaire, "a remnant of the vast holdings of the Catholic Church" on a large tract of land in downtown Montreal. Tempe's scientific work convinces her that the grisly murder is the act of a serial killer, an assertion that puts her at odds with the male detectives of the police department, especially the gruffly sexist lead detective, Luc Claudel. A fortysomething recovering alcoholic who has taken the Montreal job to give breathing space to a faltering marriage, Tempe decides to pursue the investigation on her own. She begins a journey that takes her into the meaner streets of the city, puts her in contact with some very creepy characters, and eventually places her own life in jeopardy.
"Some of Tempe's personality traits are also mine," Reichs says reluctantly. "Friends who have read the book tell me that her dialogue sounds like me. She can be a bit of a smartass at times. She can be a bit abrasive. But in terms of her personal life, it's fiction. And while I do go out to exhumations if we get a tip, I would never pursue the investigation in the way that she does. I stay in the lab."
Well then it's lucky that fiction got Reichs out into the crisp Quebec air. Hired for the provincial post partly because she is one of the few certified forensic anthropologists who also speaks French, Reichs makes brilliant use of the neighborhoods of Montreal as a backdrop for the action of the book. And her portrayal of French Canadian personalities is rich, acute and frequently amusing.
Reichs says that she grew up with no special desire to write. "I had an interest in archaeology, though I couldn't put a name on it as a kid. I was always reading books on places like Easter Island. I also had an interest in mysteries like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I think that's the appeal of forensic anthropology: it brings the science and mystery together."
The idea for writing "Deja Dead" came much later, when she was well along in her career. "I rolled this idea around in my head for five or six years," Reichs recalls. "Then two years ago I saw that I was doing things in forensics that people seemed genuinely interested in right now, and I told myself, 'OK do it.' I decided to write on the days that I didn't teach. I set a rigid schedule for myself and got up at 6 a.m. and wrote for at least three hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I wrote on the weekends. I'm very methodical. I did a chapter-by-chapter outline. I kept a number of files going on my computer, a time chart, a character file, a flow chart. And as I wrote I would modify these as I went along."
Fortunately there was a touch of madness in all that method. "Deja Dead" is a gripping tale, with a compelling main character and an engaging supporting cast. Even better, Reichs' writing is always lively and usually quite witty.
Reichs herself is most proud of her descriptions of the autopsy and investigative procedures Tempe uses to pursue the elusive serial killer. "The hard part was interweaving the science, making it brief enough so that it isn't boring, and doing it totally without jargon. Everything I describe in the book, I actually did. A few of the techniques, like bite mark analysis, I do not use in my own research. But I sat down with a forensic dentist and went through the whole process. I tried to make it accurate, not just grisly or sensational. I wrote it to give people the feel of what it's like to do this kind of work.
"What makes 'Deja Dead' unique is that I write about the things I actually do. Being in the autopsy room, autopsy procedure, skeletal analysis. I don't need to research that. I live it. That's what I do every single day."
Interview by Alden Mudge.