I should issue the obvious warning that some details may be revealed below that will reveal part or all of the mystery involved. In the case of obvious spoilers, I will try to alert the reader in advance but I might slip up so be warned.
Since the television program Bones is currently my favorite active show, it’s possibly surprising that it took so long for me to get around to the novels by Kathy Reichs upon which the show is, rather loosely based. Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who, like the author, splits her time between North Carolina and Montreal, although that’s not true in the television series. The various supporting characters on television are also missing from the novels. There are other differences. The television character emphasizes the need to be dispassionate and keep a distance from the subject matter, whereas in the book she is irritated by the impersonality of the system. Brennan is older, divorced, and also has a daughter, Katy, a close friend named Gabby who is into body piercing, and is a recovering alcoholic. She spent her childhood near Chicago and her younger brother Kevin died of an illness while still an infant. Her sister Harry is a bit of a nut. She is separated but not divorced from her husband, Pete, an attorney who cheated on her. She has a cat and occasionally babysits for Pete’s dog. She is not the naïve ivy tower ascetic suggested in the television show, and the subplot about her murderous father is absent, though he is described as an unpleasant alcoholic who died when she was younger. Both versions of Brennan tend to be control freaks. The literary version has an aversion to guns whereas the television character is fond of hers. TV Brennan has a troublesome brother who obviously did not die as a child. She is five foot five inches tall and her middle name is Deasse.
Brennan made her debut in Deja Dead (1997), which opens with the discovery of some unidentified bones in Montreal. She is sent to the scene and discovers a decapitated and largely decomposed female corpse, the body obviously dumped there some time in the past. She believes there may be a connection to another young woman killed a year previously but the office in charge of the case, Claudel, is obnoxious and misogynistic and rebuffs her suggestion. Her conviction proves more tenable when a third body is found a short while later. These early chapters follow a familiar pattern in novels about serial killers, grotesque mutilations, the gradual revelation that the crimes are connected, and the concern about alarming the public. They also reflect familiar tropes about amateur detectives – although Brennan is not strictly an amateur – including tension with the official police authorities. The placement of these in what is essentially otherwise a police procedural is uncommon but not remarkably so.
A secondary plot – which we know will converge with the first – is that Gabby is troubled by a man she met while conducting a study of Montreal prostitutes. He has a disturbing manner and appearance, has been following her, and some of his actions have been upsetting. The main plot gets very personal when Brennan is part of a raid on a suspect’s apartment, where they find strong evidence that he is their man, and that Brennan herself was one of his prospective targets. Unfortunately, he is able to escape when they try to capture him.
The next section strained my credulity a bit. The police unaccountably do not check one of the locations marked on the map they recover, even though the other marks were sites were bodies were dumped, so Brennan decides to do so herself, alone, late at night, in a thunder storm, unarmed, with a faulty flashlight and no cell phone or radio, without telling anyone where she was going. Surprise! Someone is hiding there and knocks her out just as she discovers another body. When she wakes up, her assailant is gone, along with the head from the body she just discovered.
The story proceeds along multiple parallel lines. Brennan is still unable to convince Claudel, the officer in charge, that the various cases are connected, and she doesn’t even suggest a connection to an experimental monkey that was kidnapped and similarly mutilated years earlier. Nor is it clear whether the man whose apartment they searched is the actual killer, particularly when she is later followed by a mysterious car which would likely be beyond his means. On the other hand, the reference to her personally which was found there seems stronger when the missing head is found outside her home a few days later. Distinct, but suspiciously similar is the continued stalking of her friend Gabby, although the physical description doesn’t appears to rule out the first man. The stories reinforce each other and build the tension, although much of this relies on the stupidity or stubbornness of various characters. Gabby refuses to go to the police even though she fears for her life because she’s afraid it might taint the work she has been doing among the prostitutes, a pretty thin authorial device. Claudel is supposedly a sharp investigator, but he doesn’t follow up on obvious leads or even consider suggestions that are contrary to the theory he developed the day of the first discovered crime. Nor does anyone take any serious steps to make use of the killer’s apparent fixation on Brennan, who foolishly pursues various investigations alone, at night, without telling anyone where she is going and without arming herself with so much as mace.
The convergence of the two story lines relies on a whopping big coincidence, but as John Dickson Carr argues, a degree of coincidence is what makes detective stories more interesting than reading accounts of murders in the newspaper. If we didn’t accept coincidence, Murder She Wrote would not have lasted one season, let alone twelve. I was less happy about the continuing foolishness of the protagonist, who is guilty of withholding information from the investigating team, who puts herself in jeopardy for reasons which are not adequately supported by her insistence that she feels an obligation to the victims. Similarly Gabby’s actions are inadequately motivated considering how pivotal, and stupid, they are. As is the case in most serial killer novels, we don’t have clues to tell us which of several known characters is the killer, that we only learn the details along with the narrating character.
SPOILER. There’s a pretty good red herring, but when that card is played, there are still more than fifty pages left in the book and Brennan’s daughter is coming to visit, so we know that despite the strong evidence that they are only dealing with one criminal, there is obviously another who will be exposed during the climax. The novel is quite suspenseful, if you make allowances for the dumb things several characters do, and the unraveling of the evidence is logical and convincing. It was clearly a promising debut and no surprise that Temperance Brennan soon returned for another adventure.
The second novel in the series is Death Du Jour (1999), a much better work. Publishing constraints have led to longer novels in recent years and the tightly plotted, relatively short single track detective stories of decades ago are no longer the preferred format. Faced with writing a novel twice as long as a plot might otherwise dictate, many mystery writers have turned to the use of multiple plots. Sometimes these are unrelated and are solved separately, particularly in police procedurals, but in many cases they are linked together by purpose or more frequently coincidence. The use of coincidence detracts from realism, but it’s a device we allow mystery writers so that they can achieve a more integrated and entertaining story, so long as they don’t push things so far that all credibility is lost.
In this instance, we have four separate story lines. The first involves the recovery of the bones of a nun who is a candidate for sainthood. Brennan notices something peculiar about the skull – a small mystery within the greater one – and consults a professor of religious studies who has an odd relationship with some of her students, including the niece of one of the living nuns Brennan has been working with. The niece disappears under mysterious circumstances and another student, male, displays considerable hostility. There are rumors of a Satanist cult. Then a woman’s body is found after she is tortured to death, and although she is not the missing Anna, the death seems connected. So too does a mysterious attack on Brennan one night by someone who insists that she drop her inquiry, although it is not clear what inquiry the man is talking about. The logical deduction is that this involves her questions about the missing girl, a deduction Brennan fails to make.
The second plot involves an arson fire at a remote house, following which two burned bodies are found in a bedroom, both of whose bodies show that they were drugged before the fire was started. Then an elderly woman is discovered in the basement, having been shot to death prior to the fire. The investigation later uncovers a father, mother, and twin babies in an outbuilding, stabbed to death, and someone has carved the hearts of the babies out of their chests. Investigation of this case indicates the elderly woman rented the house, had communicated with the young family for some months before they came north to Canada to live with her, apparently in fear of another man. The couple had formerly lived within some kind of religious community in South Caroline which is, coincidentally, the place where Brennan lives when she’s not in Montreal. The suggestion of a cult of some sort is evident here as well.
Plot number three involves Brennan’s sister, whose latest fad is to become a trainee counselor for a spiritual healing organization which is – coincidentally – having a seminar in Montreal. She is oddly reticent about details concerning the program, which appears to prohibit drinking and have other unusual attributes, and occasionally she is moody and secretive after her classes. The hint of a cult is clear in this case as well.
The fourth plot is wrapped around another coincidence. Brennan takes her daughter Katy to an offshore island that is a preserve for monkeys used in various scientific applications. The island is off limits to outsiders, but shortly after arriving she stumbles across a half buried body. Since the local specialist is out of the country, she is prevailed upon to oversee the recovery operation of what the authorities initially suspect is the dumped body of a drug smuggler, only to discover a second body under the first.
SPOILER ALERT. The nature of the threat is quite obvious – a cult of some sort with arms in both South Carolia and Montreal (and Texas as well we learn). The most specific mystery is the identity of the head of the cult, which turns out to be quite a surprise, although it’s a bit of a cheat since there is absolutely no way that we could have guessed this in advance except by chance. In fact, we never do find out who murdered the family in Canada or anyone else, although we do learn who gave the orders. This time Brennan does not run around acting foolishly and taking unreasonable risks. In fact, the early attack on her person seems to have come out of nowhere.
The climactic confrontation is a bit of a let down, however. Her sister’s involvement and a blizzard do make her intervention with a lone police officer seem valid, if unusual. The fact that the head of the cult is not the person who seemed most likely means that we are denied seeing this individual get brought up short, and the real head nutcase is only on stage for a short time. More annoying is the method in which Brennan escapes. En route, her companion – Ryan – wants to check in with the local police before going to the site where they expect to find the killer. A fallen tree makes this impossible and then Ryan is shot, leaving Brennan alone to be captured. Then we discover that he used his cell phone to call beforehand so the police knew they were there, which he didn’t bother to tell Brennan and which means that the physical visit was unnecessary in any case. I also had a lingering problem with the coincidences, specifically finding the bodies on a random trip to a random island that just happen to be related to the two cases she was working on. That’s stretching things a bit too far. Despite these cavils, the last third of the book is relentlessly suspenseful and overall it’s a very big improvement on its predecessor.
Third in the series was Deadly Decisions (2000), which opens with a young girl becoming collateral damage during a battle between motorcycle gangs in Montreal. Just as Brennan decides to take a more active role in that investigation she discovers that Detective Ryan, her occasional romantic interest, has been arrested for dealing drugs. When a gang member plea bargains by agreeing to lead authorities to the site where two men were buried, Brennan goes along to supervise the excavation, but they find an extra skull and leg bones, buried nearby, in a site that has various physical anomalies. Although her involvement seems peripheral, one night she receives a package containing a warning note and a human eye in a glass of fluid. Once again, I was thrown out of the story by a blatant implausibility. Instead of calling the police – since a crime has obviously been committed – she puts the eye in her refrigerator, announcing that she will examine it in the lab after the weekend. I could accept – barely – that an ignorant person might do so, but Brennan works with the police, understands police procedure, and just would not have acted this unprofessionally. Later she also leaves when a woman is murdered in front of her without waiting for the police, although with a not entirely unreasonable explanation, ostensibly to warn the police of the imminent bloodbath at a biker funeral. But when she arrives, she fails to mention the intelligence she has just received.
Using FBI databases, Brennan discovers the identity of the skull thanks to an unusual medical device implanted in her brain. The victim was a teenager who disappeared in North Carolina, where most of the rest of her bones were recovered but not positively identified. The teenager died during a period when a larger biker club was in the area, which suggests a connection. Then another biker is found dead, his body burned, but something about the crime scene suggests to Brennan that this is not just another gang related incident. She receives unreliable confirmation when the chief suspect, another biker, requests an interview with her, wanting to trade information about the dead teenager for help convincing the police to look for another perpetrator. Before he can do so, he is murdered while in custody, and his dying words suggest that the nephew might be in jeopardy.
Not surprisingly the nephew has become involved with the local biker gang and, we discover, has had some involvement with drugs in his past, suggesting he is not as innocent as he pretends. A sleazy journalist has also stolen some evidence from Brennan’s apartment. There is also a suspicious temporary clerk where Brennan works whom I immediately suspected was associated with one of the gangs, since we’d been told just a few pages before she shows up that the gangs often plant moles among the authorities. This leads to her implausibly going alone and unarmed into a biker bar, where she is taken prisoner by a handful of homicidal thugs, from whom she is rescued by Detective Ryan – whose undercover status was painfully obvious from the outset and whose main purpose in the series so far seems to be to ride to her rescue.
Brennan gets the crucial clue when the temp, whom we reasonably expect to be a biker hanger on, announces that she was hiding in the closet when the most recent victim was killed, a bit too much of a coincidence to be even remotely believable. She also has key advance information about the climactic confrontation. The fact that a drug addict with connections to gangs would have been given the sensitive job in the first place just makes it worse. The nephew gets wounded in the shootout, and there is a surprise revelation about who committed one of the murders, and not all of them are solved. Since Ryan is still undercover when the book ends, it seems logical to assume that the next book will continue to work some of the loose ends from this one.
There are some strong similarities between this and the previous book. Instead of her daughter or a friend, she has a nephew visiting, and just like the visit the friend, the nephew is off on extensive mysterious side trips and Brennan doesn’t see him for days on end. Once again she’s mysteriously threatened even though it doesn’t appear that she is a threat to anyone or that she’s close to solving a crime. And mirroring the first book, she’s partnered with another obnoxious police officer who clearly doesn’t like her – although Claudel is back as well and after a quiet start becomes more annoying than ever. Although the mystery itself is interesting at times and unraveled in a mostly credible fashion, the re-use of old plot devices and Brennan’s constant lapses of common sense, let alone good judgment, were not helpful. Neither was the subplot about Ryan’s legal troubles, which are handled off stage and which end up being more distracting than anything else, and his reappearance at the end to rescue her is creaky and artificial. Despite strong writing, the plot this time seems stuck together with duct tape and chewing gum.
Next up was Fatal Voyage (2001), which opens with a major plane crash in a remote part of North Carolina. Brennan is part of the response and recovery team, but so is Ryan, sent down because his partner was supposed to be escorting a prisoner on that very flight. The opening situation is an example of the good and bad use of coincidence. Among the body parts recovered is a foot that doesn’t match any of the known passengers. Brennan suspects that it is unrelated and pokes around a mysterious house in the area, after which she is promptly booted off the team because of highly placed influential people who anonymously accuse her of trespassing and compromising evidence because she recovered the foot from coyotes rather than documenting it on site, clearly impossible. The coincidental find is acceptable because it helps set up the story; the coincidence of her finding it is less so, because it was unnecessary, although it is later part of the justification for her banishment. The coincidence that Ryan just happens to show up in time to help her chase off the coyotes is unnecessary and detracts from the realism of the story.
Officially banned from participating, Brennan intends to show that the foot is not related to the crash. Fortunately, the local sheriff unofficially accepts her version of events and provides some valuable assistance. Ryan is there to provide romantic tension, because they get into a fight early on, but it’s more distracting than useful. The plane crash, not surprisingly, was the result of an explosion, presumed to be a bomb, perhaps aimed to prevent the transferring prisoner from talking, although this later proves not to be the case.
Then we have another of those frustrating incidents where Brennan ignores a crime. Someone in an expensive car tries to run her down and, as in the earlier books, she never even considers calling the police. This is clearly a contrivance for the author’s convenience with little relation to how the real world works and it’s cheating, big time. To add insult to metaphorical injury, a short time later her room is ransacked by parties unknown and she doesn’t report that to the police either.
Meanwhile, she and the sheriff visit the outskirts of the mysterious building and find evidence suggesting that a body is buried on the property, which leads to a request for a search warrant. A trumped case suggests that Brennan stole the foot – even though she didn’t even know it was missing – and another member of the team who could corroborate her story is missing. Then, to make matters even worse, the missing person she believes connected – or disconnected – from the foot turns up alive. She does learn that the mystery house is owned by a corporation, gets a list of its officers, and finds out that Davenport – the lieutenant governor who seems to be stoking the fires of the campaign against her – was born in the area.
Eventually the sheriff finds an excuse to enter the mystery building, where they find one dead body and the burial sites of several more. There is also a room and equipment suggesting – as we already expect – the existence of a secret society, presumably one which required new members to take a human life as a prerequisite for joining. An even darker twist gets added later. The concluding chapters are quite good, except that once again Brennan disregards her own safety for no good reason. Having received a threatening phone call and after knowing that one of her friends was brutally murdered by the killer or killers, she goes for a walk alone at night, and promptly gets kidnapped and almost murdered. The secret society is unmasked and the immediate killer is a minor character whom I suspected chiefly because there was no other reason for him to be there. What I find most frustrating about the shortcuts Reichs takes is that she’s a good enough writer not to need them. Without them, this would have been a much better novel, but it’s quite good even carrying that baggage.
Grave Secrets (2002) has a radical change of venue. Brennan is in Guatemala helping to identify bodies of those massacred during its long civil war. As the story opens, two friends of hers are attacked, ostensibly as part of a botched robbery, although we later learn that the attackers mentioned her name and may have misidentified one of the friends as her. Since the death squads of the former government are still in power, this is not an idle threat. Nor is she greeted with open arms by some members of the current government when a police officer named Galiano asks her to help with the identification of a decayed body found in a hotel septic tank. Some of it may just be territorial turf protection but it seems to both Brennan and the reader that there is a more sinister, concealed reason.
The body is that of a young girl, believed to be one of four such who have disappeared in recent months. Three of these are upper class Guatemalans; the fourth is the daughter of the Canadian ambassador, Specter. At least one of the Guatelaman girls was known to have been friendly with Christine Specter, but no connections among the others are apparent. There are cat hairs in some of the clothing and the ambassador’s cat drowned a while earlier, but there are other pets as well and the evidence provides no real leads. Christine has been involved with drugs, and has been to a rehab facility, and has also recently learned that she is the daughter of her mother’s lover, not her father, which he does not know himself, or so we are led to believe.
Although the local District Attorney restricts Brennan’s access to the body from the septic tank, she is able to spend considerable time when another body is found following an anonymous telephone call and is able to identify it as one of the missing women. Brennan suspects the unidentified woman might be Christine, but the missing diplomat’s daughter, as well as her missing friend, are both arrested for shoplifting in Canada, leaving only one potential identity for the remaining victim, unless it is an unrelated case. Christine’s mother prevails upon Brennan to accompany her to Canada to confront her daughter, a plot development I found rather unconvincing though not fatally so. She is also looking forward to a reunion with Ryan, although she and Galiano – who coincidentally knew Ryan at college – are also experiencing some mutual attraction.
Brennan has been bothered from time to time by an inquisitive reporter supposedly doing a story on human rights in Guatemala, who shows up unexpectedly when she and Ryan track down Christine Specter in Canada. A short time afterward, the reporter is gunned down in the street by a Guatemalan, who is in turn killed by Ryan. Brennan joins the reader in suspecting that the murders are linked to the attempted murder of her friend and Ryan cautions her to be careful even while she is in Canada. We are also apprised of some unsavory facts about Christine’s father, the ambassador, who apparently has had affairs with a number of young girls despite his sterling reputation. Other evidence suggests that one of the two dead women was killed by an overly ardent stalker who confesses.
The plot momentum then shifts to the murdered journalist’s notes, which include a picture of the recalcitrant DA in uniform standing alongside a man suspected of having organized at least one of the massacres. The material also includes a lengthy article about stem cells, which does not seem to fit with any of the other clues but which is obviously significant. The closing scenes feel a bit rushed because there are so many questions to be answered, and also because the general shape of the solution has become obvious. There is a mild surprise about the identity of the actual mastermind, but the details are pretty well telegraphed. This was Reichs’ most technically proficient novel to date, and even the closing scene where she risks her neck once again is fairly well justified under the circumstances.
Bare Bones (2003) follows the established pattern. Three separate cases are quickly discovered to be interconnected. The first is the disappearance of a young woman and her drug dealing boyfriend, after which the bones of her newborn baby are discovered in a stove. The second involves the crash of a small plane killing both of its passengers, a plane apparently involved in air dropping consignments of illegal drugs. The bodies and the plane have connections to a small time businessman and suspected drug dealer named Dorton. Finally, Brennan and her daughter attend a picnic at which a trove of buried bones are discovered. Although most are animal, there are some human ones which leads to a search and the discovery of more unidentified remains in a privy near an abandoned house, whose owner knew the missing drug dealer. We also have two side stories. One is Brennan’s attempt to have a romantic relationship with Detective Ryan, who is visiting her, and the other involves her daughter Katy’s involvement with a young man who appears to be okay but whom Brennan instinctively distrusts. And all of this is colored by the opening page in which Brennan tells us that this investigation resulted in her killing a man, although we don’t know who or under what circumstances.
Brennan has to work with another obnoxious detective this time, a caustic, bigoted man named Slidell. Slidell and his partner establish the relationship between the privy remains and the drug dealer and his girlfriend, Tamela Banks, whose father is Brennan’s friend. The father and a sister also disappear under uncertain circumstances shortly after the investigation begins. The search of the property where the privy is located turns up bags of drugs and feathers from the world’s rarest bird. The wrecked plane also contained remnants of an unidentified black powdery substance, which does not appear to be a drug. There are various theories about the crash, but the general conclusion is that it was some kind of accident. Slidell’s partner also remembers that a body mutilated in the same fashion was reported in South Carolina three years previously and that the missing parts match up.
Then things begin to get interesting. Brennan receives emails with pictures indicating someone has been following her and her daughter for at least a couple of days. Dorton turns up dead in a hotel room. Katy’s boyfriend, Palmer, works for the Wildlife Service, which is suspicious given the indications that traffic in endangered species is involved. He also professes to know nothing about birds and bear poaching, the instances in question, and one of his co-workers seems oddly reluctant to talk about him. Then a family emergency requires Ryan to return to Canada and we have the set up for a deadly confrontation. This time, I am happy to say, Brennan does tell the police about the threats.
The number of suspicious deaths mounts quickly, as do the coincidences. Two Wildlife Service agents went missing a few years earlier. The expert who had possession of the case files on the torso murder is mysteriously stricken and dies in a coma. The coroner who originally was involved in the case died of an apparent stroke while still in his forties, and after he’d suggested to a deputy that he was going to have the case reopened. Then one of the missing agents is found, drowned in his car in a lake, bearing a note that Brennan fails to interpret but we readers are smart enough to see that it suggests the boyfriend is in this up to his neck. Except that turns out to be a red herring.
As in the past, Reichs is excellent up to the disappointing ending. For one thing, it’s a repeat. She gets kidnapped by the killer who wants to make her death look like an accident. She outwits him but is almost killed anyway, rescued at the last moment by Slidell and company. She gets rescued a lot. I would have liked it better if she’d rescued herself this time. Secondly, it’s a bit of a cheat since the killer has never appeared in the book before the final confrontation, although he is mentioned a few times. Most of the rest of the explanation had been unraveled already and the climax is actually rather flat.
Monday Mourning (2004) opens with the discovery of three skeletons – all young women – unearthed in the basement of a pizza parlor. Initially it appears possible that they are as much as a century old, but then Brennan gets a mysterious phone call from a woman who says she knows about something that happened at the site before the pizza place opened. The call, unfortunately, is terminated abruptly. Convinced that these are recent deaths – and naturally the reader knows this as a matter of course – she pursues the investigation despite resistance from her old nemesis Detective Claudel. Which means, of course, poking into the history of the building and its former tenants. A peculiar break-in at her apartment is dismissed as unrelated, but I never considered that a possibility.
The story seems to advance more straightforwardly than in most of the earlier novels. The mysterious caller, Louise Parent, is found smothered to death in her bed, her sister/roommate missing. Three buttons found with the bodies turn out to be two from the 19th Century and one newer imitation. Through analysis, Brennan learns that at least one of the three bodies died during the 1980s and that body does not share some similarities found in the other two. Claudel is reluctantly forced to devote more time to the case, which becomes more interesting when they learn that during the 1980s the building was owned by a known organized crime figure. The missing sister turns up and reveals that the dead woman witnessed questionable comings and goings of young women when the pizza parlor was run as a pawnshop, operated by Stephan Menard.
All of the evidence, as well as Brennan’s suspicions, point to Menard as the killer, but with well over one hundred pages left in the book, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be that easy. It’s not. Ryan and Brennan go to interview Menard, but the man who claims to be him turns out to be an impostor. There are also marks around the ears on all three skulls which Brennan can’t explain, which made a little light go on in my head when we learn that Menard’s ears had an unusual shape.
A raid on the impostor’s house is a mixed success. Two captive women are freed, although at least one is probably insane. The false Menard commits suicide before he can be arrested, leaving us with several unanswered questions. Did he kill Parent? Where is the real Menard? And who broke into Brennan’s apartment and why? There’s a twist involving the impostor’s death that I saw coming a mile away, but it’s still quite effective. The explanation for why Parent was killed is not entirely convincing but it was a minor point.
Another quite suspenseful outing, although the romantic byplay between Ryan and Brennan continues to be repetitive and based primarily on the reluctance by either party to ask or answer simple questions when problems arise. The side story about Anne, a visiting friend, is a redo of two previous books in which another friend and Brennan’s sister visited during a personal crisis, and a third in which it was her nephew. The end also involves her being taken captive yet again, and while she contributes to her own rescue this time, she is still ultimately saved by the men. I was not entirely convinced that the two freed victims would be housed in an unsecured ward in the hospital, given their evident psychological problems and the fact that the police still entertained the possibility that the man they believed responsible might have been working in partnership with the real Menard. Finally, a grammatical quibble. People feel “nauseated”, not “nauseous.”
Cross Bones (2005) borrows a little from The Da Vinci Code. A dealer in antiquities from Israel is found murdered and a mysterious man who identifies himself as “Kessler” gives Brennan a photograph of an ancient burial site and claims it was responsible for his death. She shows the photograph to a scientist who concludes that it is of a mysterious and unexplained find, part of the dig at Masada, and subsequent investigation leads to the news that such a skeleton existed, was sent to a museum in France where it was stolen and given to a Catholic priest who knew the dead man. It is believed possible that the skeleton is of Jesus, and that proof of such would undermine the Christian religion if it were to be known.
Although this is suspenseful enough, with encounters with a jackal in a dark cave, stoning by religious fanatics, hints of terrorism, and another murder, I didn’t enjoy this as much as the earlier books in the series. The mystery involving the murders is almost secondary to the question of whose skeleton it is – we never find out – and whether or not another skeleton is that of Jesus himself – we never find out. Brennan gets herself captured by the murderer yet again, and has to be rescued by the timely arrival of a male companion yet again, but the last few chapters are very flat and the revelation of the killer’s identity, though mildly surprising, lacks its usual punch.
Brennan stumbles upon a body at an archaeological site in Break No Bones (2006), an unidentified white male with no visible sign of death. Shortly after helping with the preliminary autopsy, a strange car is spotted parked in front of the house where she’s staying. It’s funny how the killers in these books always go gunning for the medical expert rather than the investigating officers, even when there has been nothing to identify them, or where they live, or in this case the house they’ve borrowed. Anyway, she has another houseguest, her estranged husband this time. Pete’s looking into the finances of an extremist religious group and possibly a missing young woman who had been complaining that the group was mishandling its funds. A private detective hired to find the woman is also missing. There’s also an obnoxious developer who wants the site cleared so he can start construction.
Before long a second body shows up, then a third. One of the bodies is the missing detective, another is a homeless person, the third is that of a menial laborer. There seem to be no connections but there are oddities. The homeless woman went to the clinic where the missing girl once worked, and where the detective was taking pictures. Two of the bodies have unusual cut marks on some of the bones. The detective appears to be a suicide, but he was carrying a wallet belonging to another man, who lost it while barhopping. The people working at the clinic are obstructive and complain to the local sheriff. One body is found in the ocean, with the shell of a fresh water mollusk. Another is found with an eyebrow that does not match the victim. The detective was also looking into other disappearances at the time of his death. It is clear to the reader that the disappearances/deaths are connected to the clinic, which is run by the possibly criminally operated church group. Meanwhile Brennan is running interference between her estranged husband Pete and her lover Ryan, both of who are staying at the same house where she is. And the local coroner, a friend of Brennan’s, is suffering from potentially terminal cancer.
SPOILER ALERT. I thought it was pretty obvious that this was all the cover for an organ smuggling ring, but some readers might not recognize the signs. After accumulating evidence, Brennan convinces the sheriff to search the medical clinic, where a very large amount of mostly circumstantial evidence leads to the arrest of the resident doctor. He claims that he’s being framed, and Brennan has some doubts. She is also bothered by the near fatal shooting of her husband, which the police dismiss as probably accidental, and two incidents in which strange vehicles were seen near where she is staying. Since there was still nearly one hundred pages remaining in the book, and we still hadn’t learned where the missing woman has gone, it was quite obvious that there would be more revelations. The doctor would probably be proven innocent, at least of some of the criminal activity, and a more sinister mastermind clearly remained to be revealed. Or at least that’s how we are expected to think. There’s a double reversal that neatly ties things up. Despite the fact that once again Brennan ultimately falls under the power of the killer and has to be saved by a man, this was well above average. The motive behind the killings seemed to me very obvious, but I’ll refrain from mentioning it here.
Bones to Ashes (2007) opens with a flashback to Brennan’s childhood, when her close friend Evangeline, a transplanted French Canadian, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, her relatives warning that she and her family had become “dangerous.” When the skeleton of a young girl shows up in Quebec in the present, she immediately – and rather unbelievably – flashes back to the missing girl. Given the number of children’s skeletons she has reportedly examined, this seems like a pretty big leap of intuition. Meanwhile, our old friend Ryan is investigating the possibility of a serial killer specializing in girls in their early teens.
Brennan discovers an unusual malformation in the old set of bones, which I won’t attempt to describe here. She also enlists the aid of a detective, who tracks down Evangeline’s sister, who married a local gangster, left him, and ended up badly burned after an unproven arson attack. Sister Harry comes to visit and the two of them track down Evangeline’s sister and have a less than satisfactory interview in which she says Evangeline disappeared, and was presumed dead, two years after Brennan last saw her. Before they can return to Montreal, they have a brief confrontation with two thugs who probably work for the sister’s gangster husband. The following day, the sister is missing, having left a suicide note, apparently having thrown herself into the river.
Two separate threads continue in parallel. The investigation into the missing girls centers on a photographer who has a large number of encrypted files – pornography or something else? – concealed on a thumb drive in his apartment. Sister Harry has found a privately printed book of poems which may have been written by Evangeline. And a familiar sinister touch – two men have been asking questions about Brennan’s apartment, which of course she does not bother mentioning to the police. Nor is she particularly concerned when she receives a threatening telephone call, although eventually she does confide in Ryan.
Then the photographer is shot to death just as Brennan decides the bones she’s examining are actually more than a century old. That leads to discovery of kiddie porn, prostitution, and other sex related crimes but nothing directly linking them to the main gangster. There’s a fairly good reversal as the truth comes out; the person we think is the chief villain turns out to be quite different. The fact that both sisters from Brennan’s past are still alive comes as no surprise given that neither body was ever found. Reasonably suspenseful but a step down from the previous book.
Reichs, alas, repeats her usual shticks. Sister Harry goes missing and incommunicado for the last third of the book. Brennan gets caught in the clutches of one of the thugs, a lot earlier than usual, and gets rescued by a man again. There’s another artificial barrier impeding her romantic relationship with Ryan, which had not only gotten pretty old by now but was particularly unconvincing this time. It’s more of the two-people-not-talking-to-each-other device which I find annoying even when it isn’t done to death, as it is here, folded into an extremely unlikely personal situation for Ryan.
Devil Bones (2008) opens with a familiar situation, the inadvertent discovery of human remains. In this case a plumber finds an unsuspected sub-basement which is clearly meant as the site for some kind of ritual, possibly voodoo. There is a human skull which might have been there for a long time, but there is also the recently slaughtered body of a chicken. Further investigation uncovers other human bones and a photograph that might be of the victim, a teenaged girl. At almost the same time, a headless corpse is found washed up on a beach, a young male this time, but there is very puzzling and contradictory evidence. The body does not appear to have been immersed in water and the pattern of putrefaction is atypical. In and around these two threads is a subplot involving an opportunistic politician who starts a public outcry against Satanism. Evidence from the second crime scene seems to support that theory, but the first is more likely a variation of Santeria.
The building where the ceremonial chamber was located went through several changes of ownership, but it appears that during the relevant time, it was being rented by a man named Cuervo, who has since disappeared, although it turns out he was run down by a train and has been in the coroner’s freezer for several days. The bones were stolen from a cemetery years earlier and passed through several hands before being sold to Cuervo, who is supposedly into white magic only although at least one person involved suggests that he had turned to the dark side. In the middle of all this, one of the detectives – who has appeared in an earlier book – is fatally wounded by a drive-by shooter. Brennan goes on a bender, loses a day, and cannot remember what she did during the blackout period, which has unfortunate consequences. There is also a link between headless corpse and a gay prostitute peripherally involved in the case and another link to the rabble rousing politician.Then the graverobber, now a Wiccan, is shot to death at his home, propelling us into the endgame. The killer is the father of one of the other victims, who has become incited by the politician’s rantings about witchcraft and Satanism.
There’s another totally implausible scene in this one. Although the case she’s investigating involves some sort of link to Satanism, Brennan does not call the police when someone leaves a dead snake with a pentagram cut into it on her front step. Instead she buries it in the garden and casually mentions it to the detective she’s working with, but not until the following day. This is just not plausible since it is potentially significant evidence in an ongoing murder investigation.
Rinaldi’s notes suggest that he had found a connection between the headless corpse and Glenn Evans, personal assistant to the rabble rouser. Through luck rather than deduction, Brennan builds a case against Evans and is present when a search is made of his apartment. There they find a freezer containing the missing head, suggesting that the body was frozen, thereby explaining the unusual pattern of decay. But just when we think we understand what has happened, Evans himself turns up dead. A pretty good resolution of the mystery…but an absolutely dreadful ending to the novel.
Once again, Brennan falls into the hands of the real killer and nearby becomes his next victim, but much worse than that, once again she has to be rescued at the last moment by a man! Reichs apparently lacks any faith in her protagonist to save herself. I felt frustrated because otherwise this had been a very good entry in the series. There is also an amusing goof this time. At one point Brennan sits in a “Brentwood rocker”. I’m pretty sure that should be a “bentwood rocker” since a Brentwood rocker is a babyseat.
The most recent Brennan novel as of this writing is 206 Bones (2009), that title referring to the number of bones in a human body. It opens with a mild change of technique – Brennan is already a captive and the bulk of the book is a flashback. The story proper begins with her successfully defending herself from a charge that she falsified autopsy results, charges laid by an anonymous tipster. While visiting Chicago to clear this up, she visits her ex-husband’s family and agrees to look into the disappearance of a friend’s son. His body – skeleton actually – turns up held in the local morgue, unidentified until she examines it. Her conclusion is that he was stabbed to death.
Back in Montreal, a series of murderous attacks are elderly women is suspected to be the work of a serial killer. Brennan is working on one set of remains when a bone goes missing, later retrieved from the site by the new person at the lab, who does not get along with anyone, particularly Brennan. This animosity escalates as things progress, as do a series of threats – threatening letters, an attack at her apartment. I thought it very strange that Brennan never seemed to suspect the newcomer of being behind the smear campaign, particularly since she is convinced that it is someone who works at the Montreal laboratory. At least this time she reports the attack at the apartment to the police, although she does not report the threatening letter.
The actual murder mystery this time is secondary to the plot against Reichs. The identities of the individuals responsible are mostly obvious and given the history of one of them, I can't help wondering if the police laboratories in Canada are really that lax in their background checks. Brennan actually takes positive steps to escape from the doom planned for her this time, which is a plus, but I knew she wasn't going to make it on her own and sure enough, along comes Ryan to rescue her in the end.
Reichs is a rewarding but frustrating author to read, particularly multiple volumes in a comparatively short period. Every one of her books has started well, and with the exception of Cross Bones every one of them has gripped me thoroughly until the closing chapters. Ultimately she spoils many of her own books by the hackneyed, repetitive, and annoying woman-in-jeopardy sequences that lack even the saving grace of showing a competent woman overcoming obstacles. Perhaps she should watch some of the episodes of the television series loosely based on this series and observe that it is not necessary for her protagonist to be in jeopardy every time in order to have an exciting, suspenseful story, and that competent women sometimes manage to escape all by themselves.
Since writing the above, Spider Bones (2010) has extended the story. A man accidentally kills himself during an autoerotic episode in Canada and his fingerprints match a man who died in Vietnam forty years earlier. The presumably mistakenly identified body is exhumed but poses and even greater problem, and before long we have a third and a game of musical identities that Brennan and company have to solve. At the same time, a pair of recent murders in Hawaii turns out to be linked to the same chain of impersonation – a rather large coincidence – and someone inevitably tries to kill Brennan, a plot device that is even less convincing than usual this time around. There’s a subplot about the tension between Brennan’s daughter and boyfriend Ryan’s daughter that is pretty lame and horribly predictable. Although this didn't measure up to the better novels in the series, the puzzle is sufficiently intricate to make it a compulsive read.
Flash and Bones (2011) pretty much follows the same pattern as the other novels. The discovery of a man buried in a landfill with traces of a rare poison in his body lead Brennan and others to reconsider a case in which two young people disappeared several years earlier. the trail involves an estranged father, a white supremacist group, several NASCAR fans and professionals, a missing biological researcher, a disgraced policeman who insists that he was framed, and some stock recalcitrant FBI agents. Brennan weathers problems with her estranged husband's new girlfriend, death threats, a potential new romantic partner, and other distractions while helping to follow up on various leads. There are several red herrings to complicate things and the motive for the original murders is a bit of a leap but otherwise this one is an above average police procedural. Unfortunately once again it ends with Brennan taking an unnecessary risk and finding herself in mortal danger, only to have one of the male characters rescue her at the last moment.
Bones Are Forever (2012) opens with the discovery of a dead infant in an apartment recently tenanted by a mysterious woman who has no visible means of support. When two more infant bodies are discovered hidden in the same apartment, Brennan and the authorities launch a manhunt across Canada searching for the woman, who may be involved with a pimp who is currently contesting with two other men for influence in a remote part of the country. There are also connections to the diamond mining industry in northern Canada. The discovery that the missing woman is mentally on a ten year old level only adds to the mystery, and a spate of violent deaths - both in the present and the past - make matters even more convoluted. Although this feels more restrained than some of Reichs' other novels, the suspense is much more compelling than usual. Unfortunately, the standard ending spoils the effect. Brennan is captured by the killer once again and has to be rescued by a couple of the male police officers. This authorial tick has moved from amusing to irritating to maddening.
Bones of the Lost
Bones Never Lie