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Kathy Reichs

Body of evidence

How Montreal anthropologist Kathy Reichs parlayed a love of literature and a career in forensics into a two-book deal

By Kathleen Hickey

We’ve all seen the covers on magazines like Writer’s Digest. The ones that feed secret dreams of fame and fortune; the ones that elicit skeptical groans. “Write a million-dollar novel!” As if it happens every day.


Kathy ReichsIt doesn’t, of course, but amazingly it does happen. Kathy Reichs, a scientist little-known outside forensic circles, is the newest case. She has parlayed years of anthropological work in crime labs around North America and a love of literature into a $1.2-million (U.S.) two-book deal with Scribner for Déjà Dead – a thriller set in Montreal – and a sequel. The manuscript sparked a bidding war between the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild, and at last count will be translated into 13 languages. No prior literary experience, no agent, no one who even read the manuscript before a friend of her daughter’s passed it on to a friend of his who was working at the press as a junior editor. Reichs knows the groans start here.

“I really don’t know anything about writing,” she claims, partly rueful, partly suspicious of where this line of questioning is headed. As a forensic anthropologist, accustomed to gruesome murder cases and courthouse media crushes and still in the first throes of book promotion, she is naturally guarded. Her soft-spoken but brisk comments are salted with “off-the-records,” even for seemingly innocuous details.

Like her fictional counterpart, Temperance Brennan, she is a compelling character: at once intensely private, southern-belle charming, bitterly wry, scientific, shy, tough, maternal. There are flashes of all of these, then it’s back to business: “Did I answer your question?” Kathy Reichs is friendly, but she keeps herself to herself.

As in her novel, Reichs is most eloquent when she is talking about her science. She has a knack for explaining complex theories and processes, conveying her passion for the biological patterns that can make silent bones speak. In a passage in Déjà Dead, Reichs describes this skill as “the scientist’s oral abstract for public consumption…. It is trotted out for cocktail parties, fund raisers, first meetings, and other social occasions. We all have one.”

But Reichs’ spiel is honed by more than cocktail party chit-chat. She also brings professorial expertise to her work, teaching everyone from Anthro 101 students to RCMP investigators to FBI agents at Quantico. Add to this experience a gift for written communication and a refusal to pull punches in her storytelling, and Déjà Dead becomes a scientific blockbuster that carries the full weight of Reichs’ real-life authority.

As a forensic anthropologist, Reichs studies bones to help solve crimes. Cardboard boxes in the small office she shares with forensic dentist Richard Doiron hold skulls, pelvic bones, and other pieces from the cases they are working on. The two work closely, their specialties dovetailed in the quest to know who these people are, and how they died. Reichs pauses to explain the difference between a young woman’s skull and that of an older person – the individual plates of the younger bones are not as fused. “She was probably in her mid-20s, and in this case, she was murdered.” She picks up an evidence bag and addresses the head under her breath, “Now who are you?” checking to be sure the bones are restored to the proper case number.

“Basically, I do three things: first, I do some recovery and some exhumations. Most of my work is done here in the lab, but I go out to the sites sometimes. Second, to prosecute a murder, you need a name. So I help in cases where the victim is unidentified or in cases of presumed identity, like when a body has been badly burned in a fire. Like Tempe does in my book, I can only give police leads. I give them the sex, a range of ages, whether they’re Caucasian, Asian, Black. Then they have to check missing persons reports. I don’t get positive IDs, that’s where the dental records come in.” She looks at Dr. Doiron. “And I specialize in post-mortem trauma and trauma analysis, whether they’ve been dismembered, or shot, or stabbed. That’s in the book.”

Déjà Dead began with the draft of a novel Reichs put aside eight years ago. Inspired by a colleague who was making extra money writing romance novels, Reichs thought, “I can do that.” Thus Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist from North Carolina living in Montreal, was born. Several years later, with her three children in university, Reichs dug out her manuscript. She threw out everything except her Tempe character, bought books on how to write, and applied her scientific approach to the task at hand.

“It took me two years to write. I work on a little notebook computer. I do a chapter-by-chapter outline, then I subdivide as I go. I keep files for everything: a time-line file, character files. I always have five or six files on the go. That helps me a lot when I have to go back to something. And it really helps me now that I’m writing the sequel.”

To complete Déjà Dead, Reichs rose at 6 a.m. each day to write for three hours before going to teach her classes at the University of North Carolina. On her days off, she wrote longer. Now, with the advance from her publisher, she is taking a year’s sabbatical from teaching to complete the second installment. She is grateful for the extra time. “It’s given me the freedom to do what I want to do.”

“Each morning, I reread what I wrote the day before, which takes a lot of time, but it helps me get back into the story. I’m constantly revising, then I write the next part of the story.”

The result is a perfectly paced, action-packed novel about a horrible summer in Montreal where, between St. Jean Baptiste Day and the annual July construction holiday, Temperance Brennan is caught up in the search for a sadistic sex killer. She uses her forensic expertise to match the saw marks on the decapitated bodies brought to her for identification, desperate to convince the antagonistic Detective Claudel that they are dealing with a serial murderer. Frustrated by his chauvinistic attitude and by slow results from the Montreal police and the Sûreté du Québec, Tempe starts her own detective work that takes her from the wealthy enclave of Westmount to the red-light district of Ste. Catherine Street, and east to an abandoned seminary – a reminder of the way the city has changed since the Quiet Revolution loosened the Roman Catholic church’s grip on Montreal’s poor.

Kathy Reichs first arrived in Montreal as a visiting McGill professor and part-time forensic anthropologist for the province in 1989. Richard Doiron knew that Quebec was in dire need of an anthropologist, and that Reichs was the only one of the few dozen qualified scientists in North America who could speak French. “At least, I thought I could until I got here,” she laughs.

After a bitterly cold winter spent in the city with her children (“There are mountain people and there are beach people – I’m a beach person”) Reichs decided to divide her year between her teaching and forensic jobs, spending winters in North Carolina and summers in Montreal.

Now that she’s on sabbatical, Reichs plans to complete her second book for delivery in June of next year. She is also gearing up to promote her novel with a 12-city author tour, a 25-city radio satellite tour, and an appearance on the Today Show. She is becoming versed in publishing terms like subsidiary rights, advance reader copy, and lay-down. But although she’s pleased to have more time for her writing, she will not give up her science. “I’ll always do my case work,” she says. “That’s where I get my ideas.”