Bones to Ashes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

Bones to Ashes

by Kathy Reichs

William Heinemann, HK$208

When Kathy Reichs began writing crime fiction her aim was to bring her somewhat obscure branch of medical science to public attention. Reichs, a forensic anthropologist who determines cause of death by analysing bones, was a university professor who had published textbooks and journal articles, and thought it might be fun to try her hand at the genre.

She's succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Her debut thriller, 1997's Deja Dead, was an instant best-seller - in fact, the most successful crime debut novel ever - as have been all 10 of her graphic and disturbing thrillers featuring protagonist Temperance, or Tempe, Brennan, who shares Reichs' speciality and has the same jobs. Her books even spawned a US television series two years ago, Bones, with Tempe played by Emily Deschanel.

In the decade since Deja Dead, each addition has been eagerly awaited by Reichs' many fans, for whom, it seems, there's no such thing as too gory. And so the release of Bones to Ashes has been accompanied by a huge publicity build-up, international advertising and a world tour for Reichs to promote a series she says is 'not for the faint-hearted'.

Over the years, Reichs' writing has become slicker, more polished, as she herself admits. She says she cringes at some of her clunky cliches and similes in those early works.

Bones to Ashes - gripping, economically written, each chapter ending with a question or cliffhanger to draw the reader on - continues this trend. The unsettling tale, with child pornography at its heart, is set in Quebec, where Tempe - as does Reichs - works for the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Medecine Legale.

Reichs' books are based on real cases and this one, which centres on the finding of the skeleton of a teenage girl who died many years earlier, was prompted by the discovery of a child's skeleton in Brunswick, Quebec, in 1989. It was never identified - Reichs still has it.

In this fictional account, the discovery prompts memories of the disappearance of Tempe's childhood friend, the exotic Evangeline Landry, and her sister, Obeline, with whom she and her own sister, Harry, shared childhood beach summers until, five years on, the Landry sisters disappeared without trace. Could this skeleton be the 15-year-old Evangeline? For Tempe, the thought is a gut reaction. There's no logical link, but as events unfold it becomes clear the idea isn't so preposterous after all. The harebrained Harry arrives, unannounced, to stay and help solve the mystery.

The skeleton, together with the discovery of three more recent bodies and a list of four missing girls, means the local police, including Tempe's former (or is he?) lover Andrew Ryan, could be investigating the work of a serial killer. If the skeleton is Evangeline, was her death linked to the other murders? The question haunts Tempe as she tries to discover how the girl died and the mysterious cause of her misshapen bones.

This is a multi-strand plot that Reichs (below) handles deftly, keeping the focus on Tempe but gradually drawing together all the threads, keeping her readers involved and guessing.

Her early works were entertaining but a little clunky - this is the work of a fine writer, one capable of maintaining suspense and developing her characters, including local cold case cop Hippo Hippolyte Gallant, whom Tempe starts out viewing as a bit of an inconvenience but realises is a far more complex and competent investigator than she'd given him credit for.

Reichs, too, hasn't been given full credit but that's also changing. Initially dismissed by some critics as someone who plunders her case files to churn out crime fiction read by the undiscerning, she's confounded them by developing into a master of the slice 'em and dice 'em genre.