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.