Pocket, 1998, 532 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-01136-7
Despite all the good qualities a novel can possess, they’re for nothing unless someone actually picks up the book and starts reading it. Given that automated mini-harpoons are outlawed, books have to find better ways to hook you so you actually consider reading the story.
There are, needless to say, many ways of doing so. Some are completely divorced from the content of the book (like the book design, quality of production, lettering… even cover illustration in some case…) while other directly come from the book’s content.
Déjà Dead has an undeniable hook for most French-Canadian readers of crime fiction. It’s a major novel from a renowned American publisher (Scribner/Pocket), by an American author, that takes place… in Montréal.
The differences between Kathy Reichs (author) and Temperance Brennan (protagonist) are slight from a professional point of view. Both work as forensic anthropologists for “the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec.” Write what you know, say most writing books.
And Reich obviously knows her stuff. Déjà Dead has, as an additional hook, the merits of allowing the reader to peer over the shoulder of a forensic anthropologist at work. Some of the digressions, like the discussion of dismemberment methods, are oddly fascinating.
The setup is average as far as crime novel go: Bodies are discovered, brought to the attention of the protagonist, who then eventually deduce that they’ve got a serial killer in action. What follows is, obviously, the efforts of the protagonist to catch the villain, even though the protagonist in this case might have zero business trying to catch the bad guy.
Déjà Dead plays the rules of the genre with a qualified awareness of them, suggesting an author who’s spent a lot of time reading what’s available out there. It doesn’t prevent the usage of traditional dramatic devices like the Missing Friend (who, we all know, is going to be involved in the sordid murder business.) As for the pet… well…
The novel is also a bit overwritten, combining the slight impression that we know where it’s going with the feeling that we’re going there slowly. While Reichs creates an interesting atmosphere, Déjà Dead still could have profited from a thorough editing.
French-Canadian readers, of course, will appreciate the setting. It’s worth noting that Reichs doesn’t make too many mistakes, which is a welcome improvement over many of the other US writers who have attempted a Québec novel (see, for one regrettable example, Clive Cussler’s Vixen 03).
The female narrator-protagonist is also a change of pace from the hard-boiled narrator or third-person point-of-view that we see so often in this genre. Given that numerous references are made to Patricia Cornwell in the opening blurbs, chances are that this is intentional.
Still, for a first novel, Déjà Dead possesses the remarkable qualities of readability, painless exposition, good characterization and good writing. I’d be picky to ask for more. I’m already hooked enough as it is.