Sunday, June 13, 2010

The dead speak

Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs

After five years of avoiding the show, I decided to find out what made the show Bones such a winner and how it had lasted for five years. I was not disappointed. I was, however, interested in learning more about the real life model for Temperance Brennan when I read the show was based on Kathy Reichs's detective novels told from the perspective of a forensic anthropologist, so I ordered Deja Dead and began reading as soon as it arrived.

I looked forward to seeing a crime solved from the bones of a case and to get a close-up view of the process of telling a person's life from the states of their skeletal remains. I got that and more than I had hoped in Kathy Reichs's novel. The details are chilling and exceptional, as they would be since Reichs is a working and accredited forensic anthropologist, and she is much more approachable and human than her television counterpart.

The writing has gritty and raw and hard-edged, but Reichs has a tendency to work too hard at creating metaphors, so hard that they often come off flat and intrusive. Where Reichs excels is not only in the details of forensic pathology, but in giving life to Tempe Brennan and her emotions. Brennan's attention to detail in her work and willingness to take chances in the field, even though she has no field training, makes her vulnerable and fascinating. It's also provides a base for a character arc that gives her plenty of room to grow.

In her drive to make Deja Dead more than just a police, or rather forensic, procedural, Reichs's execution does create some problems. In trying to write a hard-boiled novel with literary sensibilities, she is out of her depth most of the time, the writing constipated where it should be free flowing. She does, however, manage to pull of a one-two metaphoric punch that shows she, as well as Brennan, is learning and growing, or rather that she managed to get out of Brennan's way and let the character take the lead. One memorable example is when Brennan goes to a food stand to get a hot dog.

The guy behind the stand is a John Belushi look-alike. His clothes were damp and smelled of smoke and fat and a spice I didn't recognize. Droplets sparkled in his thick hair. When I glanced over he smiled at me, cocked one bushy eyebrow and ran his tongue slowly along his upper lip. He might as well have shown me his hemorrhoid.

Deja Dead is more than a forensic anthropologist's eye view of tracking and catching a serial killer. It is the first steps of a quickly maturing author who has an exacting eye for detail, a fine sense of theater and a growing grasp of what makes a story ring with truth when she lets the characters speak for themselves.

I much prefer Reichs's version of Brennan to Emily Deschanel's, but both have charms that make watching and reading them worth while.

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