‘Déjà Dead’ by Kathy Reichs

Oh dear.  Yes, I went there.  I read a Temperance Brennan novel.  It took me a long time to finish composing this review.  I’ve been shouting and wincing at the on-screen antics of the younger, duller, richer television version of this woman for years.  In this first book, published in 1997, Brennan is a divorcee mother to a nineteen year old girl.  Her qualifications and work bear a very strong, some might even say mirror-image, resemblance to Reichs’ own.

I have only taken a couple of courses in biological anthropology, and those at an undergraduate level some years ago.  I could not detect any inaccuracies in Brennan’s methods or results, and it was refreshing to come across actual terminology that had significance and plot related importance instead of the usual ‘tech with the tech’ approach to genre fiction.  Things made sense more often than not to me, at least as far as skeletal analysis went.

Where Reichs seems to fall down is voice, characterisation, linearities and descriptions.  The voice is abrupt, brief, as if Brennan is bored of telling her story before it’s already begun.  Some very short sentences make no grammatical or actual sense to me.  The emotional tension seems to turn on and off, strobe-ing between panic and clinical detachment.  Every time Brennan feels an emotion, the word emotion or reaction seemed to be needed to signpost it.  When she showed outward physical signs of emotion it seemed to come in sudden intense bursts and then recede away into calm self-analysis.  Nearly all characterisation of the subsidiary players in this tale are visual and relate more to the way Brennan sees the world than to their identities; it’s a world of cardboard cut-outs and seat-warmers.

Linearity to me is a big one.  I think I criticised this in The Bloodgate Guardian, and I’m criticising it here.  Information is revealed in stages, and as the story is in the trail of evidence there’s a lot of exposition.  There’s a lot of Brennan walking into a lab, starting her day, then half a page later having a conversation with someone. Someone she’s seen twice before that day, since she entered the lab, and as she talks to them she recalls in an aside the exposition she gave them earlier in the day.  The recursion and flashbacks gave me narrative vertigo, they were handled very clumsily.  At times conversations seemed to be skipped to speed things up, at other times to draw out or facilitate the revelation of the next plot point.

Descriptions were flat.  Mostly along the ‘there was a rock on a hillside’ line.  As with the linearity problems, descriptions start in a place that seems perfectly fine and then pan across to some huge scary thing.  It can work visually in film, but when you’re there in person you see the huge scary thing first.  When you recount the story later, you mention the notable things first and then generally work backwards to the minutiae.  Perhaps Brennan’s brain or memory has a pan-and-scan function, or there’s a convention that allows for this in the niche of gorey thrillers that I haven’t become acclimatised to quite yet.

Still, Brennan’s a smart character.  I’d rather have a few storytelling quibbles with a book than see complete and utter howlers and misrepresentations of forensic science and bianth methods.  If you’re looking for accuracy in your crime fiction, this would be the go-to writer, though my fingers are crossed that I’ll find more writers and better books in the future.

To balance perspective, here’s some positive reviews at S.Krishna Books, Nose in a Book, and A Worn Pathbooks i done read has a less favourable view, and some comments on bilingual cultures in fiction.

Ah, and a final note; all these reviewers seem to find the human remains a bit scary and unsettling.  For those of you who aren’t used to dead human parts, keep in mind there are a lot of scenes you’ll find quite graphic.

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