KATHY Reichs was 49 when she wrote her first novel. Yet her other career is what makes her writing special.
Having worked for years as a forensic anthropologist, she used her scientific skills to help solve murders and violent deaths. She knows better than anyone the world her characters inhabit.
Temperance Brennan, her heroine, is also a forensic anthropologist and has made Reichs one of the world’s best-known and respected crime novelists.
The colourful Brennan even made it to the small screen, in the long- running series, Bones.
Now, Reichs is starting over with a feisty new character. Sunday Night, the heroine of her latest novel, Two Nights, is a very different investigator, and Reichs says she was initially reluctant to make the departure.
“It was suggested to me by my publisher, and I was resistant, initially. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised I was already formulating a character and a storyline.”
A new character offered new opportunities.
“I wasn’t locked in to everything I had created for 18 books, so I could completely make it up and that was very liberating.
“I approached it a little differently, because it was the first, so I did a bit more outlining than I would normally do. She’s different to Temperance. She’s got a lot of demons, a lot of baggage. It’s kind of a psychological thriller and police investigative murder mystery combined.”
Indeed, Sunday gave the author the chance to explore further an area which intrigues her.
“For my second book, Death de Jour, I did a lot of research on cults. Who’s vulnerable to being recruited, how do cults recruit members, that sort of thing? At the time, I wondered, but didn’t follow up on, what if someone was born into one of those apocalyptic cults, where everyone ends up killing themselves and each other?
“That’s the basis for this character — she grew up in a cult. She escaped this, but everybody she knew as a child died.
“She’s got guilt about that, and she’s also quite distrustful, she’s got a lot of anger, she doesn’t deal well with authority, at all.”
Sunday is an unconventional investigator. After getting into trouble with the law, she trained during a stint in the marine corps, but has since isolated herself from the world. When she’s asked to help find a missing girl, who is possibly connected to a cult, her personal history compels her to get involved.
Reichs’ move into writing was prompted partly by a desire to put her children through college. Did she always know she could write?
“No. I did not write any fiction at all. I wrote text books and journal articles. I made full professor at the university, so I was free to do something new.
“I had just worked on a serial murder case, which had some interesting elements to it, so, in 1994, during a spring break, I decided: ‘Ok, I’m going to write this book’.”
A previous effort, writing in the third person, was abandoned. Her second attempt was in the first person, “and that just really worked for me”.
She jokes that getting published was almost an “embarrassingly” smooth transition. “My daughter had a friend, who had a friend, who had a friend at a publishing house, so I wrote a cover letter and I just mailed it.
“She later told me that she took a few chapters home that night, read them, got in the car and went back, got the rest of the book and took it home.” Within ten days, a deal had been finalised.
As a forensic anthropologist, Reichs has worked on cases as intriguing as they were harrowing, including the Rwandan genocide and on Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site in New York.
“Ground zero was hard work, psychologically and physically. We worked 13-hour shifts, just digging through the rubble, trying to recover. Everything was very fragmentary. We had to sort out what was human. There was a lot of bone, because there were restaurants, catering services, animal bone. That was hard.”
It’s work that requires certain character traits.
“As with any scientist, you need to be good at observation and good at deductive reasoning. You need to be able to detach, because what we work on — and we’re just one member of a team — I work with the pathologist, and the forensic dentist, and the guy who does the mitochondrial DNA analysis and the person who does the hair and fibre.
“I happen to work on the victim, him or herself, the remains. You have to be able to detach from that and remain objective. You can’t get emotionally involved with the person who’s lying on your table, or you won’t be any good for them.
“You have to have the ability to deal with the sights and the smells of decomposing bodies and violent death,” Reichs says.
But that’s not always easy to do, and working with children is particularly difficult. “When I started the book Bones Are Forever, there’s a really tough chapter, babies are discovered. At that time, I was working simultaneously on three child homicide cases.
“Those are tough. It’s hard to become emotionally detached and objective with dead kids. With battered women. Victims who in no way put themselves at risk.”
But her work has also involved discovering how people lived as well as died. She could tell if somebody was left-handed, had given birth, or even what they did for a living.
“There was a case I did for the Catholic Church. We dug up a woman who’d died in 1714, and she had been proposed for sainthood. There were no dental records that we could use to ID her, but she had spent her life praying and sewing, and we could see notching in her teeth, from years and years of pulling the thread through her teeth.”
She understands why there is such interest in crime fiction. “People are fascinated with good versus evil and I think the ultimate evil is to take someone else’s life. And I think people are interested in my books because they like to learn a little something, a little science.
“It’s brief, but I’m committed to keeping it accurate. And I think that people enjoy the fun of the puzzle. Watching for those clues, and then figuring out which clues are leading you in the right direction and which clues are red herrings, which is legitimate, as long as they work, and as long as you tie them off. And trying to solve the mystery before the author tells you,” Reichs says.
- Two Nights is published by Penguin Random Ireland