Kathy Reichs

Grave Secrets, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 2002, 366 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02838-3

Condemning with faint praise is a favourite sport of reviewers everywhere, and so let us start by saying that I come to talk about Kathy Reichs’s fifth novel with no intention of burying it. For once.

It’s no secret that I’m not Reich’s biggest fan: After a promising start in Deja Dead, Reich’s next few novels took a rapid turn for the worse, repeating themselves and ripping off headlines with less than admirable grace. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and so it grew tiresome to see Quebec-area headlines being recycled almost wholesale in her novels. Worse yet was Reich’s lazy approach to plotting, in which newly-introduced relatives of the heroine inevitably found themselves in mortal peril before the end of every single novel. There were other things too, but my memory has since thankfully blanked them out.

So imagine my surprise in saying that Grave Secrets is not entirely horrible.

For one thing, Reich leaves Quebec to set her story mostly in Guatemala. This is not a sudden abandonment of her “stealing from real-life” strategy as much as it’s a displacement: Reichs (for all her flaws as a writer) is a real-life forensic anthropologist, and she has worked in Central America to resolve past crimes through cadaver examination. From a French-Canadian perspective, it makes her fiction just a touch stranger, and stronger for it. (On the other hand, Guatemalans are probably reading her stuff and shaking their heads in much the same way that Quebecers are wont to do with her previous novels.)

What Reich’s perennial narrator/protagonist Temperance Brennan discovers in Guatemala, beyond the ubiquitous maggoty corpses, is evidence of a small-scale conspiracy. Expression-du-jour “stem cells” is brought up and then never go away, along with the expected stuff about conspiracies in high places, abusive local officials, a Canadian connection and a small trip back to Montreal that actually feels refreshing in the middle of the rest. The protagonists’ so-called love life is once again unearthed as a fake source of sexual tension that is as ridiculous as it’s ineffective. Unsurprisingly, Brennan finds out that her police partner in Guatemala turns out to be (hear this!) an old high-school chum of her perennial lust interest Andrew Ryan. No less.

But that last clumsy misstep aside, Grave Secrets at least has the decency to avoid actively insulting its readers’ intelligence with nonsensical developments. The superficial thriller mechanics are in place, and Brennan’s own moment in jeopardy late in the novel is feebly justified, but mercifully brief. The techno-thriller part of the plot is too obvious to be credible –and comes along with a half-hearted defence of Bush’s stem-cell ban.

Still, it’s worth noting that “not being bad” is still some distance away from “being good”. In this case, we still get a novel that’s far too chatty for its own good (often inanely so, especially when it comes to the attempt at a romantic sub-plot), erring in too many red herrings and the usual contrivances.

Reich may have produced a novel that doesn’t make me want to claw my own brain out, but Grave Secrets will not be mistaken for anything more than an average piece of criminal fiction. Beyond the premise, the different setting and the broad strokes of the plot (not to mention the convenient coincidences), there isn’t much worth remembering in the novel. You may argue that rapid forgetfulness is the best that Reich can hope for at this point in her career, is it not better to be talked about badly than not talked about at all? All I know is that I’ve got an entire bookcase of books to read, and there’s not a single Reichs left in it.

Fatal Voyage, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 2001, 420 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02837-5

I have made no secret, in past reviews of Kathy Reichs’ novels, of my decidedly mixed feelings about her literary output. While I’m more than happy enough to read an American writer setting stories in my quasi-native Quebec, I was rather less enthusiastic about the lack of originality and the awful contrivances of her plotting. Alas, Fatal Voyage, keeps most of the problems and few of the qualities of Reichs’ previous books.

This time, rather than steal the plot of her novel from French-Canadian headlines, Reichs is a touch more original by using a plane crash as her initial situation. As the novel opens, protagonist Tempe Brennan is in the middle of a debris field, looking dispassionately at body parts strewn across the North Carolinian landscape. As an official investigator for a disaster response team, her efforts to understand what has just happened go awry when an unidentified body part complicates her investigation. The item doesn’t fit anything else on the plane; where has it come from, then?

If you’re familiar with the old joke about an airplane crashing in a graveyard, you’re already far ahead of Reichs’ protagonist. Furthermore, chances are that you’re already half annoyed by this plot cheat. But don’t be too exasperated yet; in typical Reichs fashion, it quickly becomes apparent that her daughter might have been on the plane and that the partner of her good friend Andrew Ryan was also on the plane, escorting a dangerous criminal. Anyone else would say that these are two coincidences too many, but this kind of lazy plotting is, in fact, routine for this author. But wait; there are other howlers later in the book.

The biggest plot cheat is that the plane crash ends up being a sideshow to another, rather less interesting story about a decades-old mystery, a secret society and a bunch of killers hiding corpses in the North Carolinian wilderness. Add to that a rather dull romance and this is one Fatal Voyage where we’re constantly asking ourselves if we’re there yet. As vicious hillbillies threaten Brennan with all sort of bad things, it struck this reviewer that her untimely disappearance wouldn’t be an entirely unwelcome event.

Even the usual reliable standby of the series -the Quebec setting-, disappeared almost entirely from this particular novel. Save for a brief scene, Brennan spends the whole novel in Carolina, with only the (coincidental) presence of Sûreté du Québec policeman Andrew Ryan as a reminder of the usual setting of the series.

What’s worse is that the novel is dull. Fatally dull. The age-old conspiracies are underwhelming, the hillbillies don’t amount to much of a menace and there’s a definite sensation of having seen this before.

In fact, without being so nasty as to accuse Reichs of outright plagiarism, the opening few scenes of Fatal Voyage are very, very similar to James Thayer’s Terminal Event, which also featured an investigator taking a look at a crash scene. The various possibilities about what brought down the plane are also similar; missile, organized crime bomb, political terrorism, etc. While it’s entirely possible that Reichs has read Terminal Event before working on Fatal Voyage, I’d rather blame similar plotting than idea stealing (there are only so many ways a plane can be brought down, after all). Plus, the novels evolve in entirely different directions. Weirder synchronicity has happened before.

But it doesn’t change my perception of Fatal Voyage. Filled with implausible happenstance, kept away from distinctive Quebec and dull above everything else, Fatal Voyage is best avoided. For that matter, I’m starting to think that Reichs’ oeuvre itself is best avoided. It’s not as if there aren’t better writers out there.

Deadly Décisions, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 2000, 368 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02836-7


Another year, another Kathy Reichs novel.

Even before opening the book, I knew what to expect. Cue a premise stolen from Québec’s newspapers. Cue Temperance Brenner, champ forensic pathologist, suckiest character judge ever. Cue one of her relatives conjured out of thin air, visiting Montréal just in time to get killed, brainwashed, kidnapped or otherwise hurt by Brennan’s latest cause du jour. Cue plot “twists” that are blindingly obvious to everyone but Brennan, self-imposed gratuitously dangerous situations, silly coincidences and implausible links between characters and the case.

Sigh. Onward.

After riffing off the sordid “Temple de l’ordre solaire” sect case that so dominated Québec news for a while in Death du Jour, Reichs here takes on the biker gang wars that ripped through the province in the late nineties. It is, granted, a solid premise: In real-life, the gang wars left behind dozens of dead bikers, taking with them a few innocent victims that happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment. (Indeed, most Quebec criminal statistics include a little asterisk during the late nineties specifically excluding biker-related violent deaths)

From the first few pages, it’s obvious that Reichs is once again liberally borrowing from headlines: The first few pages describe how a little girl is brought in for autopsy, an unfortunate victim of a misguided shooting. The novel even explicitly refer to the famous real-life 1995 Fontaine murder, in which a young boy had died as he was bicycling near a car that had been wired to explode on ignition. [P.28]

That’s the first of Reich’s many, many tics that pop up in this novel. This time, it’s her nephew who comes up north for a visit, arriving just in time to be befriended by the bad guys and dragged to the finale’s bloody shootout. Oh well. There’s also a “plot twist” involving a biker mole that anyone with half a brain can see coming as soon as the mole is ominously introduced. There are awful coincidences in which parts of a victim are to be found not only in Montréal -the series’ main location- but also in North Carolina, from where -surprise!- Brennan just happens to be.

I wouldn’t mind if that only happened once in a while. But this is Reich’s third novel, and the silly coincidences involving members of her family and/or North Carolina are already becoming a regular occurrence. And I still haven’t mentioned the usual stooopid scene in which Brennan does something completely moronic (and out of character) in order to advance the plot. (In this case, she jogs to a biker bar.)

After my kvetching, you’d be justified in asking why I keep reading her darn novels even as they evidently annoy me so much. The answer is, of course, that Brennan’s stuff all takes place in Montréal against a predominantly French-Canadian background. Whether her usual shtick drives me nuts or not is mitigated by seeing a major mystery series taking place in my backyard, so to speak. In Deadly Décisions, I was occasionally able to picture exactly where Brennan was, based on my visits at these places. This outsider’s view on Québec is one of the main draw of the series for me, despite everything else.

It helps, of course, that for all her faults, Reichs writes books with a definite narrative drive. However easy and cheap some of her plot shortcuts may be, there is a real desire to read forward late in the night. That, by itself, is more important than densely plotted novels about which I couldn’t care less. Plus, the technical details are a lot of fun for Hard-SF/techno-thriller fans like me. Am I waiting for Reich’s next novel? Well, of course I am.


Déjà Dead, Kathy Reichs

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.