Speaking in Bones is installment number 18 in Kathy Reichs’s highly acclaimed crime series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. The book contains another highly engrossing case for Brennan, beginning with an amateur websleuth named Hazel “Lucky” Strike paying our hero a visit and playing a spine-chilling recording of what seems to be a woman being tortured and held hostage:
Absolute stillness. Soft sobbing.
“Please don’t kill me.
“Please don’t kill me.
Though scheduled for a flight in a few hours, Brennan is unable to resist the lure of mystery, and this one takes her (and us) deep into rural North Carolina. Here, Tempe must struggle against the fundamentalist prejudices that often lurk in these backwaters of America.
Having done quite a bit of hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I particularly enjoyed the setting on Jonas Ridge for the primary action of the book. And I can assure those that have not been there that while these mountains are not as high as the Rockies, they are old and thus far more spooky, making a natural location for a mystery. In addition, the pace and action of Speaking in Bones are ideal for a summer thriller (see our list of geeky summer reads). As breathless as it makes you, reading this book pretty much classifies as an aerobic workout.
18 books is quite a lot for a series and its continued popularity will almost certainly be sustained as long as Reichs can carve out the time from her professional work to write these books. With our review of her previous novel, Bones Never Lie, we discussed the many reasons why these books continue to fascinate her readers, not the least of which is Reichs’s scientific expertise. This expertise has been pivotal to shaping the important neo-feminist protagonist, Temperance Brennan.
Although many post-feminists argue that the major issues of women’s rights have been dealt with, at least in modern countries such as the United States, Canada and much of Europe, recent comments by the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt show that many have adopted a “separate but equal” attitude towards women, particularly in the sciences. This viewpoint is often echoed in well-intentioned but ultimately corrosive comments about women being “good” at particular things, such as “good at biology” (corollary: “bad at physics,” etc.) or “good with people” (corollary: “bad at independence”). Temperance Brennan explodes these stereotypes of what a woman scientist is supposed to look like.
Tempe is a meticulous, detail-oriented researcher, who seems happiest and most at home when buried in her lab work. She is the primary driver in her cases and her closest and best-trusted colleagues treat her with the professionalism and respect they would offer a male co-worker. It is not that Brennan never encounters any sexual prejudices, but Reichs uses these dysfunctional encounters to contrast against the core of Tempe’s work environment. Temperance Brennan is an important, positive role model, particularly for any young, female science readers of Reichs’s books.
Another aspect of the books that keep readers coming back for more is the author’s passion for the subject of forensic pathology and the greater humane mission the field serves: justice and closure for the victims and their families. The human mind strongly prefers coherence and completeness of story, and for those with a missing loved one, the lack of information as to what actually occurred can be a non-starter for any meaningful healing process to begin. As Kathy Reichs has put it, “I work with the dead, but I am working for the living.”
This quest to provide closure for the bereaved is also a central theme in Speaking in Bones which acknowledges how law enforcement is not always able to succeed in this quest. Reichs herself, speaking through her character Brennan, cites some discouraging statistics: “the number of missing persons in the United States at around 90,000 at any given time, the number of unidentified remains from the past fifty years at more than 40,000. The last count I saw placed the North Carolina UID [unidentified remains] total at 115.”
Throughout history, mankind’s worst atrocities have ended with nameless dead in unmarked graves, and with each and every crime that is unraveled, we move forward as a species in the evolution of our compassion and respect for life. The stories of Temperance Brennan illustrate the value of forensics and how much we owe to those who spend their lives trying to solve crimes.