Kathy Reichs: The ice queen of crime

Kathy Reichs has written a series of bestselling novels inspired by her experiences as a forensic anthropologist. Peter Stanford is chilled - and not just by the subject
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The Independent Culture

In the Underground station, on my way to Claridges, where the bestselling American crime writer Kathy Reichs likes to stay while in London, I spot two posters side by side. The first is for Reichs's new thriller, Break No Bones (Heinemann, £17.99). The next is one for Patricia Cornwell's latest offering, At Risk. Both use the same design - a bright burst of light spotlighting an everyday but slightly sinister object, then an encircling ring of darkness to convey a general air of menace. The similarities are hardly surprising. Both are directed at readers in the same booming market: forensic crime fiction or, as Reichs corrects me, "science-driven mysteries".

Reichs and Cornwell, often mentioned in the same sentence, are the doyennes of this genre that scarcely existed 20 years ago but which has now spawned shelf after shelf of younger wannabes. There is even, it has been reported, more than a commercial rivalry between them. "It's very flattering to be compared," says Reichs, perched neatly in an armchair in her suite, sipping tea from a china cup. "As long as it's positive." Her tone is breezy but she picks her words with precision.

"We've never met, surprisingly, even though Patsy attended Davidson College at roughly the same time I was a professor there." That hint of a claim to superior knowledge is then reinforced. "She's not a scientist. I am. She's a writer. Strictly a writer. Not trained in science at all." Reichs's eyes wander for a moment before she adds as an afterthought: "I really enjoyed her early books." The air-conditioning unit humming away in the back of the room isn't the only thing giving off a slight chill.

The two women, both in their fifties, may share - uncomfortably - the throne in this literary kingdom, but as personalities they could not be more different. Cornwell has been frank in interviews about the problems she has faced: anorexia, depression, drink and divorce. Her love life and sexual orientation have been the subject of speculation in the papers, while her determination to prove that the Victorian painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper has shown an obsessional streak.

Reichs, by contrast, does not stray beyond talking about her books and her books do not stray beyond an established formula. What information is available about Reichs is there on her official website and the jackets of her novels. She is an academic by training, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (though on sabbatical since 1998), and she works as a forensic scientist in North Carolina and Quebec. In conversation she adds little by way of colour. Meeting her is rather like spending an hour with a psychotherapist. You do most of the talking and she gives away almost nothing.

Here are some typical exchanges. Is Tempe Brennan, her main character and rival to Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, an alter ego? "I think we have the same sense of humour." What about Brennan's fiery disposition? "I hope I'm more diplomatic." As a crime writer, does Reichs have a view on any issues facing the American justice system at present? "They're complicated questions." Is she involved at all in American politics? "Are you sure you wouldn't like a cup of tea?"

There is a Mr Reichs and three daughters, but they go unmentioned. With her bobbed blond hair, tight, unlined cheeks, thin, silver ankle-chains and perfect nails and make-up, Reichs presents something of an enigma. There are writers who, quite legitimately, choose to let their books do the talking, but they don't then put themselves up for interview. What, you wonder, is she trying to achieve by making such a performance out of reticence?

"One of the surprising things I hadn't expected when I decided to write crime fiction," she recalls, "is how much you are expected to be out in front of the public. Some writers aren't comfortable with that. I don't have a problem with that. I was a university professor, I could talk on and on and on. Give me a podium and you have to drag me off with a hook."

"She's very professional," her publicist remarks as I leave. And that's it, really. What Reichs calls creative writing is a business. Novels are produced - she's under contract for five more Tempe Brennan mysteries - and interviews carried out efficiently to promote the books. Then she goes back to work in forensics for another year to collect the raw material for the next. All her novels are based on her cases, though of course with the incidental details changed.

One distraction from this well-oiled production line has been the Fox television series, Bones, featuring a younger Tempe than in the books (thirtysomething rather than fortysomething) and shown here on Sky. Reichs acts as a consultant. Has she, I wonder aloud, experienced any of the disappointments that writers like P D James have spoken about in seeing her character translated to the small screen? "You'd be naive," she says, "if you think you are going to retain any control once you option a character to TV. I see my involvement as a chance to keep the science real. They have given Tempe a different back story from the books but there's nothing I can do about that."

Hers is what she calls a "practical" approach. "I'm not writing great literature. I'm writing commercial fiction for people to enjoy the stories and to like the characters. Hopefully it's well written and hopefully people learn something. I'm fastidiously conscientious about getting the science right - unlike some authors." That may or may not be a dig at Cornwell.

Writing didn't figure greatly in Reichs's childhood in Chicago and Minnesota. She wrote two books when she was nine. "One was a mystery and one was a romance and both were hideous." After that she concentrated on her studies. "You start writing as soon as you become a university professor but you're writing non-fiction. I started writing my first book, Déjà Dead, in 1994 after making full professor when I was free to do what I wanted. If you write a novel in the English department of a university you are a hero. If you write fiction in a science department, you are suspect."

She worked away outside office hours on the book. "I was teaching a full load, but I would block out time between six and nine in the mornings on days I didn't teach. Or at weekends and in vacations." The effort has been repaid many times over. Déjà Dead was the most successful crime debut ever and won the 1997 Ellis Award for the best first novel.

"It caught a wave of interest in forensic science, or contributed to the wave," she says. "I don't know which. I talk about it with my colleagues [in forensic anthropology]. What's the word you use? We are gobsmacked. We don't know why this sudden interest in what we do... I really do think it may stem, at least in North America, from the OJ Simpson trial in 1995... People were exposed to forensic science day in, day out - DNA, blood-splatter patterns and all those different things - and a curiosity developed about it."

Reichs, Cornwell and countless television series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are now part of an industry that feeds that curiosity. "I was reading recently about the CSI effect on juries in the States," she recounts. "Are juries more demanding now in terms of evidence because of what they've read or seen? Do they have unrealistic expectations? They're asking 'why didn't you do DNA?' when it was only a traffic accident."

In her more recent Tempe Brennan books, Reichs has broadened her remit. Break No Bones revolves around the trade in human organs. Bare Bones was about the trafficking of endangered species. And she has also featured the work of forensic anthropologists in human rights work. Grave Secrets tackled the fate of Guatemala's "disappeared" and followed a visit that Reichs made there to assist teams searching for evidence of atrocities.

It must have been fascinating, I enthuse, that interface between science and geo-politics. "Well, there's a time issue," Reichs replies. "I was only there for a short time. I don't have time and these are long-term projects. Most of the people doing it do it full-time but they like to have outside contact to keep their science up to date. They are either real crusaders or people who have not managed to get positions in universities."

It is a clinical and detached assessment. But perhaps, I reflect after my allotted hour, there is something about spending most of your working life with dead bodies, or writing about dead bodies, that leaves you rather clinical.


Kathy Reichs comes from Chicago, and studied for her PhD at Northwestern University. She is a forensic anthropologist - a specialist who works with bones. She is one of only 56 people certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and is also professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and, in Canada, an examiner for the province of Quebec. She publishes academic books as Kathleen J Reichs, but it is her novels featuring Tempe Brennan that have brought her international fame. Translated into 30 languages, they began with Déjà Dead, which was a New York Times bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for the best first novel. Break No Bones, published by Heinemann, is the ninth in the series. Tempe Brennan also features in the Fox TV series, Bones, shown in Britain on Sky.