Break No Bones

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am

Break No Bones

by Kathy Reichs

William Heinemann, $188

For the past decade, Dr Kathy Reichs has been parlaying her day job into best-selling crime fiction. But unlike so many crime writers spinning their cold cases into royalties gold, Reichs isn't a lawyer, an ex-cop or a hot-shot prosecutor. Her speciality - and that of the protagonist of her series, Dr Temperance 'Tempe' Brennan - is forensic anthropology.

As Reichs says in a note at the conclusion of this ninth Tempe Brennan thriller, this once-obscure and still small field - she's one of just 56 practitioners certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists - is now hot.

Thanks to writers such as Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver, then television shows such as CSI and Cold Case, forensics and pathology have captured the public imagination, she says. Her alter ego Tempe now has her own show, Bones (an anthropologist works with bones, whereas a pathologist works with soft tissue).

'Now, after decades of anonymity, we are stars,' writes Reichs. 'I'd like to think my own novels played some small part in raising awareness of forensic anthropology.'

Like Reichs, Tempe is based sometimes in Quebec and sometimes at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Break No Bones, unlike Reichs' previous novels, isn't based on just one or two cases but is a composite.

Tempe is in Charleston, South Carolina, reluctantly supervising 20 students on an archaeology dig, after the unexpected departure of a faculty colleague. The trying fortnight is almost over, but the penultimate day brings a run-in with a journalist and the developer on whose land the students have excavated a prehistoric burial ground. Then a student uncovers a body - but this is no heap of bones. It has muscle, ligament, hair ... and flies.

Charleston County coroner Emma Rousseau is an old friend of Tempe's, and when she collects the remains she asks her to conduct the post-mortem. Tempe agrees. But when Emma later confides that she's seriously ill with a fast-moving cancer, Tempe decides to stay on in Charleston to help Emma solve the mystery of the unidentified skeleton.

So, unwittingly, she's drawn into danger, with the discovery of a series of decomposing bodies and the hunt for a killer or killers. On the personal front, Tempe's situation is no less complicated. She's staying in an absent friend's home, but staying on means being there at the same time as her ex-husband, the charming but faithless Pete, who still means a lot to her. That tension multiples when her new lover, Montreal cop Ryan, turns up unannounced.

Pete is in Charleston to check the finances of a charity run by a televangelist for a client whose daughter disappeared after working at a charity clinic. She suspects either the charity or a clinic doctor were cooking the books. Now, the private investigator hired by daddy to find her is also missing. As the body count rises and Tempe works with local sheriff Junius Gullet to identify the victims, the trail leads towards the clinic Pete is investigating and the poor and disempowered patients it treats.

Tempe's need to identify the skeletons is compelling: 'In my view death in anonymity is the ultimate insult to human dignity ... While I cannot make the dead live again I can reunite some of the victims with their names and give those left behind some measure of closure.'

Reichs has honed her skill in detailing the forensics without allowing her expertise to get in the way of a good story. She combines them with a murder hunt and the relationships of key players to create a seamless, assured narrative, given added depth by her passion for the subject.