Death becomes her; The Books Interview

Other crime writers have to invent mysterious corpses; Kathy Reichs works with them.
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An exhumation in a nuns' graveyard, a cadaver covered with animal bites, charred bones in a basement: the corpses in Kathy Reichs's latest novel are the everyday material of the author's working life. Bodies are her speciality - bodies at any stage, raw, crumbly, still in one piece or chopped up into little bits. "There can be a ghoulish approach to the subject," says Reichs. "But there's also a legitimate scientific interest."

Reichs should know. As a forensic anthropologist, her task is the analysis and identification of stray corpses, and she has written three impressive textbooks on the subject. Her working life necessitates a huge range of forensic skills, travelling as she does between the two North American extremes. In Montreal, corpses may have to be hacked out of the frozen ground. Her new thriller, Death du Jour (Heinemann, pounds 10) contains a superb piece of Ice Gothic in a description of the Great Quebec Storm of 1998, when the city was gripped in Arctic temperatures and electricity supplies failed. Down in the lush heat of North Carolina, rapid decay is the besetting problem.

She is a bestselling practitioner of one of the leading modern genres: the autopsy thriller. "I do use cases I've worked on. There can be a ghoulish approach, such as downloading autopsy photographs on your computer. I want to put in enough detail to make it realistic, so that you do get an idea of what goes on at a body recovery or an autopsy, but without crossing the line into grisly sensationalism."

Autopsies seem to have a grim fascination for a society which seems in the grip of what might be called a pathology culture. When the artist Marina Abramovic sat amid a pile of bloody animal bones at the Venice Biennale in 1997, it was dubbed as freaky horror. Now our television screens show pathetic and gruesome images from Rwanda or Kosovo, the mass graves and torn, bloody shreds of clothing, with virtually every bulletin.

And this has become a leading part of the imagery of fiction. Bestselling nightmares are currently piled high in the bookshops - stories of serial killers, psychopaths and human cannibals. The autopsy chapter is almost a requisite set-piece of crime fiction, with its paraphernalia of knives and gloves now known by heart to many aficionados.

It can all be condemned as ghoulish obsession, yet some people do have to confront the actuality of death. Kathy Reichs's fictitious heroine is a woman with the same profession as the author. The quirky and somewhat irritable Dr Temperance Brennan is usually on the wagon, and occasionally in danger of falling off it.

It's hard to identify Temperance, a solitary eccentric often dining on crackers and peanut butter, with the well-kept personage I met in a comfortable London hotel. But there must be some steely strength inside the slender form of Dr K Reichs, the lightly-tanned family- loving sportswoman who reveals an innocent desire to catch a glimpse of Wimbledon while on her visit to England.

Temperance is a tough character, though it must be said she has a gooey heart (even if not as gooey as the cadavers on her slab). Kathy Reichs's own experiences are a great deal tougher and nastier than will ever be encountered by most of her readers or, for that matter, most of her fellow crime-writers. Thomas Harris, creator of Dr Hannibal Lecter, is said to have sat in court listening to the evidence in many gruesome murder trials. Reichs actually has the responsibility of standing up in the witness box.

She has worked with the United Nations, and recently gave expert evidence in the Rwandan genocide trials held in Tanzania. There she had a task fraught with political difficulty and danger: that of assessing the quality of the autopsies performed on the dead of Rwanda. Her evidence was given under the UN's Witness Protection Scheme and she was surrounded by armed guards when she travelled to and from the tribunal. As for Kosovo, "Teams will go in and I may well be involved. The Kosovo work will last for years."

The death threats she has received as a result of her legal work mean that she cannot reveal the whereabouts of her family. However, I was allowed to meet her student daughter, Courtney, who accompanied her on her trip to England. It was Courtney who pointed out that, in the US, a new impetus towards public interest in forensic evidence was created by the O J Simpson trial. Such evidence became crucial both for the prosecution and defence, as the nation followed the details of DNA testing and blood-stains every day on TV screens.

It was through a friend of her daughter in a publishing house that Reichs, who only started writing fiction in 1994, got her dream debut as a novelist. She knew no one else in the book world, and did not even have an agent. The complete manuscript of Deja Dead landed on the desk of an astonished editor. The rest, including sales totalling over 300,000, is publishing history.

But how does Reichs's writing relate to her own daily work, so far removed from those readers curled up in their armchairs with a mug of cocoa and the latest fictitious autopsy? "I put my real experience into my story," she says. "The world is divided into two categories: people who don't want to read about that sort of thing and people who are very intrigued by it. I'm very methodical because I was a scientific writer first."

There is a lot of medical detail in her novels. Death du Jour includes a minute analysis of how bugs go about nibbling dead bodies (I admit to doing a slightly queasy flip through these particular pages, but did pick up the fascinating fact that maggots breathe through their rear ends, the better to get their jaws stuck into you.) However, as an anthropologist, Reichs has wider interests than the grisly details. They extend to the cultural and social contexts of murder; the means by which human beings create social and ethnic justifications for killing.

Death du Jour involves the possibility of cult killings. It describes urban legends and the blame-giving rumours which make scapegoats of outsiders. The tales of Jewish shopkeepers kidnapping teenage girls, of North African immigrants killing French children: these stories can fan the flames of hatred, and make ethnic massacres possible.

In spite of all this grisliness, Temperance Brennan retains reactions of pity and empathy towards her wretched subjects. So does Reichs. "Even though what you're working on may be a decomposed body or a pile of bones," she says, "you have to remember that there's a family or someone out there wondering where that person is."

The human consequences of her occupation are highlighted by the consultancy work she does for the Pentagon, dealing with the bodies of war dead still returning from South-East Asia, Korea and even the Second World War battlefields. "Yes, every now and again we get a crash site out in the Pacific, and some of the families are still emotionally involved."

Maybe it's this aspect of her experience that stops Reichs from glamorising her fictional killers. The murderers that Temperance Brennan pursues remain just that, not psychopathic heroes or demonic serial killers stalking the streets like superhuman anti-Christs. And it's not just murder she is interested in, but the hidden puzzles of human history: the causes of a smallpox epidemic in 1875, say, or the secret buried in an old convent.

Again, this reflects her real experience. Giving conclusions to the mysteries of the past, identifying the nameless dead, is one of the tasks of a forensic anthropologist. Informing bereaved relatives of the identity of the deceased is one of Reichs's duties; in a curious way, it's one of the satisfactions of her job.

"When I tell some one, `It is your daughter' or `It is your husband,' it may not be what they want to hear, but always they are glad to know. It gives them closure." Lots of us read about the pathology of murder. Some of us write about it. And a very few go out and do something about it. Reichs speaks in her quiet, precise voice: "When I go into court and testify and take some of these predators off the street, when I make my contribution to that, it's very rewarding."

Kathy Reichs, a biography

Kathy Reichs, originally from Chicago, is forensic anthropologist for the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and in the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Medecine Legale of the Province of Quebec. She is one of only 50 people certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and one of the very few women to reach the top in this profession. She has given evidence in many criminal trials and has recently appeared as an expert witness in Tanzania, in the Rwanda genocide trials. She formerly taught primatology, and is also an expert in monkey society. Her first novel, Deja Dead, became an immediate bestseller in 1998 and her second, Death du Jour, is just published by Heinemann. She has three children, and divides her working life between Quebec and North Carolina.