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"We...fear things we don't understand."
on August 31, 2008
Temperance Brennan, the forty-plus forensic anthropologist, explores alternative religions in "Devil Bones," the latest Kathy Reichs thriller. An employee of the state of North Carolina, Tempe is under contract to Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. She examines "the burned, decomposed, mummified, mutilated, dismembered, and skeletal." This time around, she has a great deal on her plate. First, she is called to a "chamber of horrors" containing human and animal remains and various objects, including cauldrons, statues, candles, and dolls pierced with miniature swords. Was this the site of some sort of satanic ritual? Next, a dog walker finds a headless body near a lake. The victim's torso had been carved up with various markings that might also point to a ritualistic killing. These findings set off a firestorm, fueled by hysterical media coverage and the ranting of a grandstanding politician named Boyce Lingo, who decries "murderous devil worshippers" allowed to go unpunished. Tempe is livid not only about the leaks, but about Lingo's wild speculation and baseless accusations.
Tempe, who teams up with Erskine "Skinny" Slidell, an unkempt but hard-working and insightful homicide detective, is destined for much grief as she tries to make sense of these seemingly unrelated cases. Not only are they bashed by Lingo and disreputable reporters, but they are also frustrated by contradictory evidence, a lack of credible witnesses, and leads that go nowhere. In addition, Tempe's personal life is in turmoil, as she struggles to come to terms with her alcoholism, her ex's engagement, and her mixed feelings for Andrew Ryan, the Montreal detective who stole her heart and then proceeded to break it.
In "Devil Bones," Reichs imparts a great deal of geographical, sociological, and historical lore about Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, plus a great deal of information about maggots, putrefaction, and skeletal remains. The author's didacticism can be grating at times, although hard-core forensic junkies will most likely be fascinated by Reichs' detailed and exhaustive explanations. The plot is carefully constructed, albeit dizzying in its complexity. One of the book's main themes is the ubiquity in our country of such ideologies as Santeria, voodo, and Wicca. Are the practitioners of these unconventional belief systems harmless individuals who should be allowed to practice their faith in peace, or do they pose a threat to the population at large?
Although "Devil Bones" is exciting and suspenseful, it is far from realistic. In an interview, Reichs admits that it is rare for a forensic anthropologist to go into the field along with detectives to question witnesses and work cases from an investigative angle. Although the mysteries are involving enough, the story's most appealing angle is its focus on Tempe's midlife crisis. She cannot keep her opinions to herself, even when her boss orders her to be silent. She still has trouble avoiding alcohol and the oblivion it provides. In addition, she hates being alone, but is afraid to trust any man after the betrayals she has suffered. Anyone who has followed Tempe during her long and arduous journey will want to accompany her once again as she tries to solve some of the strangest puzzles she has ever encountered.