In Murder – Does Neatness Count

Review of “Bones Are ForeverBones are Forever.” by Kathy Reichs 


There’s a compulsion inherent to mysteries and thrillers – no matter how messy the crime scenes get. And that’s an impulse to clean things up. Baddies enter the story to upend the social order, tie the blond to the railroad track, chew on the scenery and summon all the demons of chaos. But! Then along comes Marshal Jones, in his (or her!) guise as the lonesome stalwart blessed with the inner (and outer!) strength to dish out just desserts, then make the baddies eat ‘em.

That’s the reassurance, the medication – hell, let’s face it – the opiate that most of this genre serves up. The exceptions only prove (or at least serve to underline) the rule. Then, there’s works like “Bones Are Forever,” by Kathy Reichs, a mystery that dances so closely to the line of “too clean” that a reader can practically hear the sentences squeak. Not to mention the wooden gears of the plot.

Murder.There’s no question that Reichs has been a huge success with this approach. Her first book won an Ellis and rocketed to the NY Times best-seller list, as have subsequent works. So, you argue against it at your peril. Clearly there’s an audience out there that’s avid for it. My main concern is that a) such overall tidiness does not mirror the world, and b) that it telegraphs most of the punches – which leaches tension out of the narrative.

“Bones” is a novel that features her recurring heroine, Temperance Brennan. Like Reichs herself,  Brennan is a professional forensic anthropologist. The story opens as she examines the corpse of a baby that appears to have been slain by its mother, and in rapid succession, other children who’ve met a similarly tragic fate. Brennan is soon on the killer’s trail, in the company of homicide detective Andrew Ryan and a Canadian Mountie named Oliver (“Ollie”) Hasty. Brennan has a history with both men, so a romantic triangle descends to complicate the investigation. Unfortunately, it’s a triangle that clanks more than it rings, a formulaic element that feels imposed simply so the guys can snarl at each other while they flirt with Brennan.

The simplest way to indict the repartee that thumps into the story to provide you with a sample. Q: “Why are you looking for her?” A: “I’m a dentist, and I’m worried she’s not flossing her teeth.”

Apparently, this is what passes for tough cop chatter north of the U.S. border.

The trail leads them to aboriginal – Dene – settlements in the northern territories. They find the killer, a simpleton with barely enough brain-power to invent aliases for herself, a witless woman who has worked as a prostitute and deploys infanticide as birth control. But another dimension of the woman’s sad plight is that her family has been targeted by white, pseudo-environmentalists who scheme to deprive the native people of land rights and steal the potential diamond mine that lies underground.

Reichs is a scientist, and her forays into the history of diamond mining, like her scenes of forensic analysis, are all informative and illuminating. She’s a clever enough story-teller to show Brennan making a few mistakes and getting into a bad jam or two. She’s particularly good at rendering some Native American minor characters. But since cleanliness is the overwhelming and dominant virtue of the narrative, there’s never any doubt that her feuding cop partners will cooperate on rescuing Brennan, and all problems will be solved with the smooth efficiency of a softly ticking Swiss watch. As, in the due course of time, they thoroughly are.

Reichs is a master at her own tidy modality, and her readers apparently love the dickens out of her for laying it on them. But me, I’d infinitely prefer to see a truly rogue element – or three, or four – ride in to kick over her far-too-orderly apple-cart, and infuse the literary proceedings with a few bolts of genuine demonic chaos. In this novel, the only true agent of chaos that ever shows up is the hapless infant-killer/prostitute. She’s hardly a worthy antagonist. She’s almost another victim.