Writing a suspenseful novel is a bit like putting together the pieces of a brutal murder – especially for forensic anthropologist and bestselling author Kathy Reichs.
Bodies, bones and blood are the stuff of thrillers and forensic anthropologists
The setting: March 14, 8:00 PM. Cologne’s police headquarters, an economically depressed neighborhood on the grounds of a former chemical plant.
It was a cold and rainy night as so often in mid-March. The streets were emptying, the last shoppers hurrying on their way home. Only a few fast food restaurants were serving warmed-up leftovers.
On the corner, a giant building glowed in the dark. People – hundreds of them – were entering the police department. They filed in, shaking out their umbrellas and peeling off their wet coats. One by one they pulled out tickets and handed them to the door attendant.
A policeman walked into the building’s auditorium and took a seat, a journalist entered, an actress, a camera man, a pensioner, and at least a hundred other people. Then the room fell silent.
It was no ordinary evening gathering at Cologne’s police headquarters.
The guest was an internationally-renowned American forensic anthropologist who had come to speak about her latest cases in Canada, the US and Guatemala. The audience was a group of curious and devoted detective novel fans.
But the two sides fit together perfectly, for the speaker was not only an accomplished scientist, but the bestselling author Kathy Reichs, whose gruesome thrillers enjoy a popular following among German readers.
As part of the second annual Cologne literature festival, Reichs was in the city on the Rhine for a reading and a chat about her obscure profession concerning bones and cadavers. It was the first time Reichs was in Germany, and her audience showed its appreciation with intermittent rounds of applause.
The "bones lady", as she’s affectionately called by her colleagues, draws all her ideas from real forensic cases she’s worked on.
"I take my characters to the locations and settings I know first hand," she explained to the audience. Only the names and details of the crimes are changed; the science remains the same. Like the case that appears in her most recent novel, Deadly Voyage, which just came out in German this week.
The main character, Tempe Brennan – a sort of alter ego for Reichs - is called upon by the US government to identify the victims of a terrible plane crash in North Carolina. It is a tiring and nerve-rattling task, but Tempe must sort through the rubble and debris and identify what remains of teeth, fingers, hair and bones.
In the first chapter, Reichs describes with vivid detail the scene of a large scale disaster and allows Tempe to reflect on the horror of such a tragedy. In the case of the novel, it was the loss of some 200 people aboard a passenger plane over the Appalachians. But it could just as easily be ground zero at the World Trade Center, where Reichs herself was called upon to lend her forensic expertise last September.
Fact and fiction
The parallels between the two disasters, one real the other fictional, is typical for Reichs’ work. In fact, based on her description of real cases, there’s not much need for fantasy. Most of the murders Reichs has worked on have been more violent and brutal than anything one could imagine.
In her first book, Deja Dead, Reichs-the-novelist presents a story similar to a case she was working on in Montreal, where a dismembered body appeared on the grounds of a Catholic seminary. The scientific details she weaves into the plot actually were part of the forensic evidence of the case.
Reichs’ three subsequent novels, Death Du Jour, Deadly Decisions and Deadly Voyage all rely on a similar mingling of fact and fiction.
"I always use a core set of scientific detail in my novels. You could call them science-driven mysteries. They are very accurate," Reichs assured her German readers.
In the first book, the forensic focus is bone cuts and bite marks. In the second it’s bugs, or more specifically dating the deterioration rate of a corpse based on the biological stage of larvae. In the third it’s an analysis of blood spatter patterns – the dispersion marks that occur when blood flies through the air.
With candid description, Reichs explained to her fans how important the science is in her work both factually and fictionally. A good forensic scientist, she said, learns to read and interpret these details as patterns.
Reichs’ novels have patterns too. They all start out with a body or bodies, some a few hours dead, others a century old. In each one, the forensic scientist Tempe is called in to investigate and identify skeletons. She analyses, takes measurements and conducts tests, all the while explaining in a cool and objective tone the importance of what she does. Then the plot thickens, more bodies appear and Tempe is suddenly immersed in a crime that threatens to endanger her or a family member.
Despite the sometimes gruesome subject matter and attention to detail, Reichs' novels appeal to people across the globe. Her books have been translated into 15 languages and are sold in 29 countries.
Reichs’ books are not the classic whodunits, but rather fictional readings on a very real and unfortunately violent world. In comparing herself to other similarly popular thriller writers such as Patricia Cromwell, Reichs stressed that she was first and foremost a scientist and then a writer. Her books, she said, conveyed a certain scientific authenticity.
Their appeal lies less in discovering who the murderer is and more in learning about a profession that seems so remote from daily life, and yet constantly appears in the media. "People are hearing about forensic science in the news. They hear terms like DNA analysis and they’re curious", she said.
Based on Thursday night’s reading, Reichs’ fourth book is certain to satisfy German readers’ curiosity, maybe overly indulge their fantasy, but that’s the charm of a good thriller.
And who knows, her next novel might even take place on a rainy night in Cologne near the city’s police headquarters – a dark and empty street on the edge of an old run-down factory.