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Book Review: The Devil’s Bones by Jefferson Bass

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The Devil’s Bones by Jefferson Bass is the third novel in the Dr. Bill Brockton forensics series. Jefferson Bass is the pseudonym of a writing duo, Dr. Bill Bass, a forensics specialist who founded Tennessee’s Body Farm, and Jon Jefferson, the journalist who co-wrote Dr. Bass’s nonfiction books.

I enjoy the CSI world a lot, and I can differentiate between Hollywood DNA results (done while you wait) and real-world DNA results (six months waiting list), but I’m still a sucker for a well-told tale with plenty of hard science behind it. In that frame, The Devil’s Bones has a lot of both going for it.

I enjoyed Dr. Brockton’s first-person “aw shucks,” down-to-earth storytelling. I grew up in small towns where PHDs still wear cowboy boots and haven’t quite shaken the rural accents. I always looked up to those men and women (yes, there are women there who haven’t gotten out of cowboy boots either) because they knew so much but hadn’t gotten away from the lives they’d grown up in. To me, his character felt very natural and real.

However, I was aware that this was a third novel in a series because I was reminded over and over again that I wasn’t privy to the events in the preceding novels. To my way of thinking there were simply too many ties to the last couple of novels to make this one easily picked up and absorbed by a new reader. I’m going to go back and read the other two books in order, because I was well entertained, but I really regretted not having read them before I read this one. So that’s a caveat for new readers who might be interested in this. I think the series is well worth the investment, though.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. In the beginning, Dr. Brockton tries to help a colleague out on a murder investigation that includes burning various body parts in an automobile fire at night. Readers are treated to a lot of scientific data right off the bat, but in a way that’s immediately absorbable and makes a lot of sense. I particularly enjoyed this case because it ran throughout most of the book.

A second investigation leads Dr. Brockton into the grisly discovery that a crematorium isn’t doing its job. Instead, the owners have elected to simply toss the bodies into the woods. That storyline was actually taken from recent news. I remember the news articles I read on the real case and was appalled. The authors’ descriptions of the horrendous circumstances of what those abandoned bodies were subjected to are graphic.

The storyline that I most regretted involved Dr. Brockton’s ongoing battle with Garland Hamilton, a medical examiner who has it in for the forensic anthropologist. Over the course of the last two books, Hamilton murdered Dr. Brockton’s love interest.

Occasionally the writing jarred, however. The writers are given to hyperbole from time to time, such as having Dr. Brockton “bound” into action. I haven’t met anyone who’s ever claimed to have “bounded” into action. There are a few other instances of this kind of overstatement that reminds you you’re reading a book, but thankfully they’re few. Just noticeable.

I had a good time with the novel. It’s fast, fun, and breezy, and has a lot of scientific facts and information about arson, burned bones, crematoriums, and other forensic details to keep my interest piqued. Not only that, but Dr. Brockton’s narrative made me feel like I was again back home in those small towns where I grew up. He’s an engaging character and I look forward to reading more of his investigations.

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