Review

Grave Secrets

by Kathy Reichs



In Kathy Reichs's fifth novel, the scene shifts from the familiar
American and Canadian soil to a Guatemalan village, the site of a
political massacre during that country's civil war. Although the
bloody struggles that took the lives of thousands occurred from
1962 to 1996, an international team of forensic experts that
includes Dr. Temperance Brennan has been asked to excavate a mass
grave site, identify victims and determine how they died. GRAVE
SECRETS echoes Dr. Reichs's own experience in Guatemala two years
ago, as her fictional counterpart learns first hand of the
horrifying history behind the tragic burial site.

Even though Tempe has joined the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology
Foundation on short-term assignment, she is finding it to be one of
the most depressing projects she's ever been involved with. As the
villagers look on, the team excavates an old well to remove the
bodies of women and children murdered by government soldiers. They
are hoping to find evidence that would identify those responsible
and, more importantly, identify the victims so their families can
give them a decent burial. Their heart-wrenching work is made even
more stressful by an attack on two of their team members by what
are presumably local thieves. One teammate is killed, but the
other, left for dead, lingers in a coma fighting for her life.
Local police officials converge on the GFAF camp soon after, but to
Tempe's dismay their visit has an entirely different agenda.

Sergeant-Detective Bartolomé Galiano informs Tempe that she is
now on loan to local police authorities to help investigate a
series of local disappearances that have all the earmarks of a
serial killer at work. The police have already found one body, and
Tempe's reputation as a forensic anthropologist as well as her
experience with a particular type of body disposal --- in a septic
tank --- make her services invaluable. Tempe is incensed at being
manipulated by her superiors in Canada, imposing on her to leave
the excavation project, and Galiano's strong-arm approach doesn't
improve her attitude. In addition, this case is especially
sensitive since one of the missing is the daughter of the Canadian
Ambassador to Guatemala. But Tempe's defiance finally falls apart
when she learns that the missing persons are all teenage girls ---
cases involving children have always been a personal priority.
Despite the obvious and inexplicable antagonism from the local DA,
the murder investigation gets underway, and the fractious
relationship between Galiano and Tempe begins to take an
interesting turn.

Recovering a body in a septic tank is not exactly an appealing
prospect for Tempe; the disgusting sludge has to be combed through
carefully for even the tiniest fragment of evidence. Given the
decomposition factors in the concrete cesspool, identifying which
of the missing girls was dumped here, and how she was murdered,
proves to be monumentally frustrating. And the continued
interference by the District Attorney puts a new spin on Tempe's
and Galiano's growing suspicions that there is more going on here
than a simple murder investigation.

Woven between the alternating storylines of the Guatemalan tragedy
and the missing girls is the irrepressible humor and sarcastic wit
that gives Reichs's extraordinary fictional character an engaging
feistiness. And in typical fashion Reichs shifts gears quickly by
throwing an unexpected twist into the murder investigation that
sends Tempe back to Canada, thrusting the charismatic Detective
Ryan squarely into her path once again. Their on-again, off-again
friendship, which has lent levity to previous novels, is now a
comic triangle as Reichs leaves Tempe dangling between the romantic
temptations of both Galiano and Ryan.

GRAVE SECRETS has all the attributes of a first rate thriller:
strong characters, powerful prose, and a tension-filled plot that
bounces you through an endless maze of possibilities like a little
silver ball. Reichs also interjects the usual detailed account of
the forensic methods involved, in this case a particularly
life-threatening method of examination and retrieval. While the
scientific descriptions are never the least gratuitous, this
particular portion of the story does deserve a word of caution to
the uninitiated --- do not take this novel to the dinner table.
Just imagine diving into a Port-A-Potty for something as minute as
a contact lens and you'll have a pretty good idea of what's in
store. But more importantly, her masterful mix of humor, suspense,
and thought-provoking prose far outweigh any momentary discomfort
fans might have.

The lingering impact of GRAVE SECRETS is that it seems to blur the
lines of fiction and memoir in its palpable sense of personal
grief. Her poignant tribute on the dedication page to the innocent
victims of both Guatemala and our own recent tragedy is a vivid
reminder that Dr. Reichs's two chosen professions are often
intimately and irrevocably intertwined:

"I have touched
their bones. I mourn for them."

Reviewed by Ann Bruns (BkPageWC@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

Grave Secrets
by Kathy Reichs

  • Publication Date: July 9, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0684859734
  • ISBN-13: 9780684859736