The bones lady

Last updated 10:11 06/02/2014
Kathy Reichs
Kathy Reichs

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Best-selling novelist Kathy Reichs talks life and death with Bess Manson.

The bones of a 6-year-old boy lie in a box in the lab where forensic anthropologist and bestselling author Kathy Reichs works in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He has remained there, alone and unidentified, for more than 20 years.

Reichs still lives in hope that she will one day learn his name and return him to his family.

"I take the bones out periodically to try and figure out what else I can do or what new techniques have come up to try and identify him. I thought in 20-some years we may finally have had a break in that case.

"I have a case that goes back to about 1993.

"Another child. He has never been identified.

"He had dental work - his parents cared enough about him to take him to a dentist - yet those little bones are sitting in a box in my lab.

"There are some for whom it has been a long time." Those are the frustrating cases, the 62-year-old Chicago-born author laments, the ones that have not been solved.

And like the heroine in her Bones novels, she feels an obligation to identify her victims so they may rest in peace. "If someone is not identified, they just die anonymously. I have a storage closet at my lab and there are boxes in there with just numbers on them. Many of them contain people that have never been identified so, yeah, you feel an obligation to get them back to their families or whoever is out there wondering what has happened to them."

Reichs is a no-nonsense straight talker who does not waste time on pleasantries. A prerequisite for her job, perhaps. One of only 82 forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, Reichs is arguably the reigning queen of the crime thriller genre. She has put out 16 books in the Bones series, which follows the flawed but appealing heroine Temperance Brennan.

Her books have been adapted for TV into the series Bones, now in its ninth season.

Reichs works as a producer and sometime scriptwriter on the show and even appeared in one episode as a stern professor.

The seed for most of Reichs' books are sown from her own work as a forensic anthropologist - or the bones lady. Her first Temperance book, Deja Dead, a bestseller, took its inspiration from a serial killer case she worked on. Serge Archambault, also known as "The Butcher of St-Eustache", was convicted in 1993 for the grisly murders of three women.

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Her second book involved two cases - a cult called the Solar Temple, where 75 people committed murder-suicide in Switzerland, and a skeleton of a woman from 1714 being proposed for sainthood, whom she was asked to exhume and analyse by the Catholic Church.

Her latest offering is Bones of the Lost, a pacy yarn that tackles the theme of human trafficking, set in Afghanistan which she visited last year with a gaggle of other popular authors.

Reichs has touched on some rather heavy- duty issues - such as internet child pornography, war atrocities and the trafficking of endangered species - in her Bones series. "The primary thing for me is to write a good story so people have a good time reading but I do like to include social issues in my books. I think my readers like to learn a bit of something."

Reichs' audience are forensic junkies who like to unravel the story with the help of her science. Therein lies the challenge, she says, to keep it brief and free of any kind of academic jargon and to keep it entertaining.

Reichs' expertise has seen her called in to work on identifying human remains and giving expert testimony all over the world. In Guatemala she exhumed bodies from a mass grave; in Rwanda she testified at the United Nations tribunal on genocide; and she has helped identify remains at Ground Zero. "You didn't see bodies, just fragments," Reichs says of being at the crumbling remains of the Twin Towers.

"We spent our time digging through debris looking for anything. My job was to determine what was human because there were a lot restaurants and [therefore] animal bones in the Twin Towers. So if it was human, we would tag it and bag it." What was more emotionally impacting were personal effects she found.

"We were pulling out all kinds of things - driver licences, photos - and you didn't know if that person was dead in the debris or if they had got out. I found a half-addressed box of wedding invitations. They had probably been sitting on someone's desk and they would have been doing it in their lunch hour."

Reichs always had a penchant for science.

As a child, she was much happier collecting bugs than playing with dolls, or out in the woods looking at frogs. "When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had this image of me wearing a white coat peering into a microscope, which is what I spend a lot of my time doing. I also loved reading mysteries like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and all those kids' mystery books, so I ended up combining the two."

In the course of her work she has learned to stay detached and let the bones do the "talking" to find the answers she needs.

"As you're doing the task, the bones are telling a story and you're deriving from those bones the age the person was when they died, their gender, their racial background, maybe something to do with their socio- economic status, if they were well taken care of, if they'd seen a dentist, if they were a smoker, or if they'd had babies." Any violent death is sad, particularly when it involves a child, Reichs says, but you have to keep your emotions in check. "When I was in Guatemala and I was digging this mass grave, someone said to me: If you're going to cry, the time to do that is at home in your bed at night. When you're out here working, you're just objective.

"And that's the kind of attitude you have to have. If you're going to become emotionally involved in every case, you're not going to be any good to that victim."

Reichs started writing novels after becoming a full professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. She had the time and some pretty good cases from which to glean plotlines and themes. Married to lawyer Paul, Reichs has three grown-up children.

Death has become pretty routine for Reichs. But she insists we are all exposed to our mortality. We all read about death every day in the media, she says.

"I think we are all aware of the fact that we can get up in the morning, go to work and get run over by a bus. Life is fragile."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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