Corpses and Coincidence

first published 2002

Cover of "Death du Jour (Temperance Brenn...

Cover via Amazon

Kathy Reichs‘ novel Death du Jour has a B-movie thriller’s plot and an art film’s production design. Every year, forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan commutes between Quebec and the Carolinas, teaching in two universities and helping solve crimes in laboratories thousands of miles apart. What most distinguishes this quite satisfactory detective novel are its exceptionally refreshing locales. The author’s bracing depictions of murder and corpses in Montreal and the chillier regions of French Canada go down like ice water. Whereas her scenes set in the antebellum American South emanate a honeysuckle-perfumed charm. Because of Ms. Reichs’ deft descriptive abilities, I readily forgave her for asking me to swallow the first obvious coincidence she throws at us. But by the second coincidence, one may start raising one’s eyebrows. When she finally slaps us in the face with lights-a-blazing coincidence number three, one can’t help but maybe feel a little resentful of the plot’s disingenuousness. Admittedly, there is enough suspense to keep the story moving at a functional pace. And yet mystery aficionados might be able to predict the revelations while they’re still whole continents away. But in this genre of fiction, even though there may be few legitimate surprises and the grand dénouement rings artificial, it’s the shivers and goose bumps along the way that count.  And this book can sure bring them on, at least as effectively as a pack of frozen tarantulas.

In her heroine Temperance “Tempe” Brennan we get the familiar patented feisty, noble, divorced, unconventionally attractive wonder woman. Tempe feels a lot like an idealized template of the author’s own fantasy persona. She’s so decent and proficient she could be an action figure. And for accessories she even has a beautiful, intelligent daughter and a gruffly sexy Canadian detective lover.  We also must not forget the family cat, who even gets the spotlight for a couple of chapters. In fact, it is in this cat subplot where Reichs effectively milks some genuine distress, grief, and subsequent relief.

Reichs parades most of forensics’ tricks and stunts for maximum reader awe and titillation. We get whiz-bang demonstrations of anthropometrics, genealogy, DNA analysis, and entomology. And of course there’s sure to be lots of autopsy action. The good thing going for Ms. Reichs, a real-life forensic anthropologist, is that she can write about these specialized subjects with convincing authority. The jargon and science sound real and practical. She’s rather skillful with the guts and gore too. Her descriptions of some of the unfortunate victims will definitely affect the squeamish. If character interaction is what you’re after, then Tempe’s flirtations with rugged detective Andrew Ryan are something to look forward to. Reichs is actually a very good writer whose plots and characters may just need a smidgen more artistry in their construction. Her prose is crystalline and her dialogue textured. I believe that fans of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books may find her work a welcome alternative. And if you’re at all interested in morbid details then you’re in for a treat with this one. For our post-mortem findings, Death du Jour is a book full of fascinating elements suspended within an incongruous framework. It’s enjoyable enough, even potentially thrilling, if you don’t analyze the plot too much. Sticking true to the theme, that makes this novel a lot like a dead body. It looks a lot better when it hasn’t been dissected. Well, in forensic fiction, wouldn’t that be a relief?

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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