Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs (Bantom Books, 2015)
So you know the little mind game that many of us play at one point or another in our lives where we ask ourselves, “If I had my life to do over, would I still choose the same occupation that I did when I was young?” The answer for me is that instead of being a writer and educator, I would have been a forensic anthropologist, a field that I have been fascinated by since my high school days. This question answers also why I am such a huge fan of the work of Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Bass, Tess Gerritsen, and Kathy Reichs. These authors take the reader into the fascinating world of forensics, which has exploded on television with such shows as CSI, Criminal Minds,Forensic Files, and Bones.
Kathy Reichs, the producer of the series Bones, is herself a forensic anthropologist and a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Aside from her work as an author and television producer, Reichs has participated in some of the most gut wrenching forensic cases in history, including identifying remains that were recovered from the tragedy on 9/11, the Casey Anthony trial, and the United Nations Tribunal on the genocides in Rwanda. Reichs is a bonafide authority on the subject of forensic anthropology, who writes fiction about the work that she knows best.
In a recent interview with Mark Rubenstein published in “Speaking in Bones: A Conversation with Kathy Reichs,” the author reveals where she got her ideas for the eighteenth book in the Temperence Brennan series. She states, “I'd read about this hobby called web sleuthing where people go online and find unidentified bodies and lists of missing persons. They try to match them up, attempting to solve the mystery of the unidentified remains. Most people aren't aware of this hobby so I wanted to use it, and have the western North Carolina mountains with their mysterious and unexplained 'Brown Mountain lights' as the setting. I thought it might be interesting if body parts started showing up at the overlooks near the Brown Mountain lights. So the web sleuth brings Tempe into the story and it takes off from there.”
Reich's heroine, Tempe Brennan, is a medical examiner in Mecklinburg County, North Carolina, who “moonlights” as a forensic anthropologist for the Bureau du Coroneur in La Belle Province, Canada, which is where her boyfriend, Andrew Ryan, is a lieutenant detective, who works homicide. Brennan and Ryan became an item when work united them in some of their cases. At the stunning conclusion of Reich's last book in the series, Bones Never Lie, Ryan shocks Brennan with a proposal of marriage. Due to the collapse of her first marriage as a result of her husband's infidelity, the fiercely independent Brennan is struggling with her decision as to whether to marry Ryan or remain single. Thus, throughout Speaking in Bones, the weight of Brennan's personal decision creates a romantic tension that we feel throughout her work on a strange case that is brought to Brennan by a bizaare woman named Hazel “Lucky” Strike.
Strike, who is a web sleuth, has come upon the quandary of a missing person's case that she thinks Brennan can help solve. In her initial visit to Brennan, Strike presents a miniature tape recorder that she has obtained in a search she conducted of a potential crime scene in the disappearance of a teenager named Cora Teague. The recording, which Strike refuses to turn over to Brennan, contains the disturbing sounds of a young voice pleading for her torture to cease. The unfortunate truth, however, is that although Cora Teague has been off the radar for three years, her ultra- religious parents have refused to make out a missing person's report on her, insisting that she is nothing more than a “bad girl,” who ran away with an unsuitable boyfriend. Therefore, there is technically no “disappearance” to investigate formally. However, Brennan can't let it lie.
Brennan spends a good deal of time on the Teague case working with Avery County deputy sheriff Jeff Ramsey. While Tempe is struggling to decide whether or not to accept Ryan's marriage proposal, Reichs teases the reader with a little sexual tension between Ramsey and Brennan, enough to make one wonder if Brennan has any clue about what to do in her personal life.
Professionally, however, with the help of Ramsey and homicide detective, Erskine “Skinny” Slidell, Brennan immerses herself in what turns out to be a complicated murder case, which has several interesting plot twists and unexpected victims. For example, the orange haired woman, “Lucky” Strike, who first brought the case to Brennan, makes several phone calls to Tempe over one weekend, all of which the sleuth ignores. Therefore, when Strike turns up dead, Brennan's conscience takes a serious battering from her guilt at not answering Strike's desperate messages.
Although the unwinding of the plot is fascinating, and the causes of several of the murders that occur during the story are troubling, Reichs insists on using a plot device that is not only stupid, it has become so predictable that it appears as an amateurish error for a seasoned author. Twice during the novel, despite the fact that Brennan is a capable professional, she rushes into scenes without waiting for back up to arrive and puts herself into mortal danger. The reader has to pause and ask, “How can Brennan do something that is this stupid and dangerous?” Of course, the answer is that the writer thinks that it is necessary to forward the plot to have the “fool rush in,” but surely a talented and capable writer like Reichs could figure out another way to complete the story.
Nevertheless, aside from the riveting plot and fluid writing style that Reichs employs, Brennan is surrounded by characters that over the last eighteen books in the Bones series, we have come to know and look forward to reading about. Brennan's mother, who has been a constant source of consternation to Tempe, is now ensconced in a nursing home called Heatherhill Farm, where she is refusing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Despite her advancing illness, Brennan's mother can't help herself from doing a little sleuthing on the case, which actually advances Brennan's investigation.
Daughter Katy, who is on her second tour of duty as an American GI in Afghanistan, makes a brief appearance via a phone call, just to hint to Brennan that she is about to be deployed into dangerous territory and there will be phone silence for an indeterminate amount of time, something every mother dreads to hear from any child serving in the military.
And then, of course, there is Brennan's devoted and silent companion, Birdee, a cat who is the one stable fixture in Brennan's topsy-turvy life. Birdee is Brennan's confidant, who offers rubs against the legs and deep gazes into her master's eyes as a means of comfort when Tempe can't sleep.
Speaking in Bones is entirely satisfying if you are into the genre of murder and mayhem. This passage is an example of what is written in a novel about forensics, “Most autopsies follow a standard routine After an external exam, the legendary Y incision is made. The organs are removed, weighed, and inspected. Key vessels and nerves are observed.
“With the gut cavity emptied, a U-shaped cut is made across the crown of the head, from ear to ear. The scalp is pulled down over the face in front and the neck in back. The scalp's tough underside is searched for blood or bruising, the skull's outer surface for nicks or fractures.” (p.124)
Well, I think you get the idea. If this subject matter causes you to become queasy, then a Bones book is not for you. Nor is the new hobby that the Internet has brought to many people with too much time on their hands, that of web-sleuthing. At any rate, if you do have a strong stomach and a penchant for a good mystery, you'll want to grab a copy of Speaking in Bones.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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