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The dead tell their stories in bones

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The bones of the dead give up their secrets to Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist, in the mystery series by Kathy Reichs, herself a forensic anthropologist. Those who enjoy the Dr. Kay Scarpetta novels by Patricia Cornwall will find themselves on familiar ground. The mystery is the point, but the puzzle is unraveled from the bodies.

Dr. Brennan, known as Tempe to her friends and coworkers, began her career as a forensic anthropologist working for the state of North Carolina; somewhere along the way, she also accepted an assignment with Quebec. Although she divides her time between the jurisdictions, in the two novels I’ve read she’s been based in Quebec, working for the Laboratoire de Médecine Légale. The novels are engrossing, with graphic details about the corpses under Brennan’s knife, about the ravages Nature brings to bodies left in her grasp, and about the human emotions that swirl and swing out of control in any death investigation. No doubt due to the similarities to her own work – Reichs works for both North Carolina and Quebec as well, and is of an age with Brennan – the author, writing in the first person, brings to vivid life the mysteries of the dead and the lives of those who try to solve them.

In Déja Dead, Reichs’ first Tempe novel, Brennan is living and working in Montreal, dealing with her divorce, her daughter’s new college career, and the gnawing hungers of a recovering alcoholic. Into this mix falls a mystery – who dismembered a young woman, carefully slicing through joints, and dumped the body in separate plastic bags? Tempe finds herself locking horns with the lead detective as she begins to connect the case with earlier cases, connections he refuses to see. She fears it is a serial killer, and every new find of old bones confirms her fears – but is slow to convince the detectives. Finally she starts digging into the mystery herself, literally, drawing the attention of the killer not just to her, but to her daughter and best friend as well.

Tempe is working an excavation in Guatemala as Grave Secrets opens; she and her team had volunteered to identify the residents of a small village who were killed during the Guatemalan civil war some 20 years before, their bodies dumped unceremoniously into common graves. The sadness is sharp but the terror distant until a frantic satellite call from colleagues heading to the site makes Tempe a helpless witness to a deadly attack. As the team struggles to learn what happened to their friends, Tempe is approached by Sergeant-Detective Bartolomé Galiano of Guatemala’s National Civil Police. He brings with him photos of an oozing bundle of bones found blocking a septic tank in Guatemala City, and asks for her help in properly recovering the rest of the body – likely in pieces in the same tank. Her dual investigations lead to questions about the disappearances of four young women from good families, taking her from Guatemala to Montreal and back, before all the mysteries come together in a resolution that puts Tempe in more danger than she could foresee.

The Tempe Brennan series promises to be an excellent one, exciting and intriguing with familiar faces enmeshed in fresh plots each time. Reichs already has written several books in the series, and I look forward to reading the others. For those interested in forensic science, these are a must-read.

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About Susanna Cornett