Down to the bare bones

Mortal remains

A MAN drowned, while, apparently, in the midst of a bizarre sexual practice; three corpses, identified as the same man; body parts found in a shark. Kathy Reichs’ new novel, starring, as usual, the forensic anthropologist, Tempe Brennan, is a tangle of mixed identities, long held lies and muddled lives.

Kathy has quite a few identities herself. At 60, she’s a wife, mother of three grown children and a recent grandmother of two. A prolific, best selling writer since 1997, when her debut, Deja Dead, became the best selling crime novel ever, Kathy has written and produced, some of Bones — the TV adaptation of her novels. She has also written, Virals, in collaboration with her lawyer son. It’s the first of a series of teen crime books. It’s due out here next year.

And there’s more.

A professor at the University of North Carolina — Charlotte, Kathy still works on cases as a forensic anthropologist. It’s been a pretty colourful scientific career, with many highlights. She’s taught FBI agents how to detect and recover human remains. She’s travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on genocide. She’s helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala and she assisted with identifying the remains of the dead at ground zero, after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

She’s borrowed, heavily, from her work for her novels; it’s that dollop of authenticity that makes them such compelling reading. This latest one, set mainly in Quebec and Hawaii, is nail biting stuff. But how did Kathy get the idea for mortal remains?

“I consulted for many years to JPAC — the central military labs in Hawaii,” says Kathy.

“That work included the identification of the war dead and I decided to draw on that experience. Most of the dead have now been identified; there were some from South East Asia, and from Korea and World War II as well. I thought it was an interesting area to visit, and Hawaii is, I think, a fascinating location.

“At my lab, we’ve had cases of autoerotic death, and I thought it would be interesting to explore that. And while I’ve never had a shark death, some of my colleagues have had cases where a shark has been found and, when it’s opened up a human limb appears. That happens now and again.” She weaves all these elements into an intricate plot with corkscrew twists right up to the exciting finale. It’s a superb achievement.

Tempe Brennan is a feisty force to be reckoned with. But she has her vulnerabilities too. She tussles with an ex-lover and has a complicated relationship with her daughter. Is there much of Kathy in her heroine?

“Professionally there is. Her work is quite close to what I do. The cases she works on are similar and we share the same sense of humour. But she goes further. I don’t go out and do the detective work.” Kathy says this with a tinge of regret.

“And, of course, Tempe has her own characteristics,” adds Kathy.

“She had difficulties with alcohol and she has a past broken marriage. I’ve been married for longer than I want to say!”

Kathy knew Hawaii well. She used to travel there twice a year, but in order to refresh herself, she treated her entire family to a holiday there last summer.

“We rented a big house on the beach in Maui, then in Oahu. The descriptions in the book of Mana Kai beach are pretty much the way it was.”

But not, I imagine the family tension?

Tempe had to contend with an ex-husband and his new woman — as well as with her daughter’s love traumas. “Certainly Tempe has tensions there,” laughs Kathy.

“I often write about her sister’s love life. This time I decided to make it her daughters.”

Kathy enjoys her talented family. Two of her children live nearby. She began writing to fund her children’s college fees. “I’d always had to write as a professor. I wrote technical papers and articles, and in 1994 I’d been made a full professor. That gave me freedom. I’d just worked on a serial murder case and that gave me the idea for the core story. I thought I’d take a shot at it.

Her daughter Kerry, although thrilled, was amazed at her mother’s success. She’d always considered herself the family writer and although she’s now a lawyer, she has, since, penned two romantic novels.

What was it like for Kathy co-writing a book with her son?

“Some of the early meetings were interesting. We had some creative differences, but we have come up with a good working relationship. We structured the book together and came up with a detailed outline. He did some of the writing. I would edit it heavily, then we’d discuss my changes. The book was his idea.”

And what an idea! Tempe Brennan’s 14-year-old grandniece teams up with a friend to rescue a puppy. It’s been illegally experimented on with Pavo Virus and the teens catch the illness. When they recover they have canine super ability. They use that, along with their high school science, to solve forensic case work.

“It’s a sophisticated book and was fun to write,” says Kathy.

What about the TV series, Bones? Some writers are nervous seeing their characters changed for the screen, but Kathy has nothing but good to say about her experience.

“The executive producer is wonderful; we reached a meeting of minds. Tempe Brennan is different on TV. She’s younger. She’s in her 30s and she’s not sophisticated or worldly. In the books she’s in her 40s. It works, provided readers and viewers think of it as a prequel; as a point earlier in her life.”

Kathy is happy to be in Ireland, promoting her book.

“I love coming here. My ancestors came from here; the McCarthys, so I’m coming back to my roots. Ireland has influenced me. My baby grandsons are called Brendan and Declan.”

One senses Kathy is in a good place both professionally and personally. She divides her time between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Montreal. When she’s not writing her whirlwind blend of science and psychology, consulting with the Laboratoire de science et de Médecine Légale in Quebec, or serving on the National Police Services of Canada, Kathy leads a ‘quite normal’ life.

“I play tennis, go to the beach, to the theatre or to a symphony. I have dinner with my family. Oh, and I’m trying to learn golf.”

Not that she’s ready to retire.

“I like having a foot in two different worlds. The days I go to the lab keep me fresh. And I like the days I stay at home and write. There is a certain satisfaction in writing murder mysteries. Everything gets resolved, and that is not true in the real world.”

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