Death Du Jour
Truth is stranger than fiction: The very existence of Kathy Reichs
is living proof. Before writing this review I contacted a friend
(mystery writer Anne Grant) who lives near Charlotte, North
Carolina, to ask if she knows for certain if Kathy Reichs is a real
person. I just got to thinking, see, about how improbable it is
that Scribner, who used to publish Patricia Cornwell, should lose
Cornwell and then be able to immediately come up with this woman
who not only writes the same kind of stuff, but in some ways does
it better. In addition, it's the real deal, a professional forensic
doctor who can write. What a coincidence. Could this really happen?
Or did they make her up, hire someone to write the books, and hire
another person to go around and look as good as the photo on the
My friend said Kathy Reichs is real. She does exist. My friend has
seen her at book signings and has talked to her. I have resisted my
own urge to call a certain person I know at the Office of the
Medical Examiner of NC and ask the same question --- because
apparently Dr. Reichs (if she's real then she should have her
proper title, don't you think, even if her publisher cavalierly
insists on calling her Kathy) has been sufficiently forthright in
local Charlotte radio and TV interviews to convince my friend, who
herself is no dummy.
So Dr. Kathy Reichs, a real person, is a forensic anthropologist
who teaches at UNC Charlotte, works for the Office of the Medical
Examiner of North Carolina part-time, and in Montreal the rest of
the time. The protagonist of her novels, Temperance Brennan, does
the same. Reichs' debut novel, DEJA DEAD, became an instant
bestseller and won the Arthur Ellis award for Best First Novel of
1997. DEATH DU JOUR is far and away a better book than the first,
so expect it to go to the top of the charts and to firmly establish
Dr. Reichs at the forefront of experts (think Robin Cook) who write
fiction in their own fields.
Whereas DEJA DEAD focused on Tempe Brennan's life in Montreal,
DEATH DU JOUR introduces us to Tempe's sister, her daughter, her
cat and takes us into the North Carolina side of her life and work.
From North Carolina the plot deepens and we move down to Beaufort,
South Carolina and the sea islands. And then, as it thickens some
more, we move back, up and up until we are in Canada again.
As is usual in this type of book, the plot is not nearly as
interesting as the forensic details. A strong stomach is required;
do not read this book while snacking. Recall that Dr. Brennan is an
anthropologist, not a pathologist; the bodies she deals with have
been dead for a long time. Here's a sample, in Tempe's
"'The body is on its side, with the right shoulder just below the
surface. No doubt the smell attracted scavengers. The vultures and
raccoons probably dug and ate, then pulled out the arm and the jaw
when decomposition weakened the joints.' I indicated the ribs.
'They chewed off a section of the thorax and dragged that out too.
The rest of the body was probably too deep, or just too hard to get
at, so they left it.'"
There is also a lengthy, detailed explication of forensic
entomology, i.e., how to tell from the point of view of an insect's
life, how long a person has been dead. This is in case you wanted
to know such things as: "The open wounds had also encouraged
colonization. The skull and chest contained the largest maggot
masses he'd ever seen. The face was not recognizable and he was
unable to estimate an age. He thought he might have some usable
The action weaves its threads from the Carolinas to Montreal.
Coincidence piles upon coincidence --- but neatly --- until it all
mounts up into a millennial sort of thriller plot, which is all
tied up with no loose ends, not a single one, and the explanations
having been made not so much in action as in dialogue. The really
riveting action takes place when Dr. Tempe Brennan is performing
her professional work with the dead, and describing it in
detail --- and this is done very, very well indeed. Even at her
best, Patricia Cornwell cannot top this.
Where Reichs can learn something from Cornwell is in giving her
characters a full, interesting life that engages us and makes us
want to know more about them. In this area, Dr. Reichs is gaining
on Ms. Cornwell, but she still has some work to do. The
relationship between Dr. Tempe Brennan and the Montreal Detective
Ryan has promise. And as a matter of fact, so does the cat. But I
for one hope the sister goes back and stays in Texas.