Blood, guts and a nice line in serial killers

She may look like an Avon lady, but Kathy Reichs spends her time cutting up dead bodies. Ann Treneman meets the pathologist turned bestselling thriller writer.

Kathy Reichs spends her life minutely examining corpses to expose foul play, and she is only too happy to explain what happens to our bodies after we no longer need them. For example, to clean away rotting flesh and allow a closer examination of a skeleton she recommends immersing it in Spic and Span - the Canadian version of Flash. Apparently you should never boil-wash, the process works best at a slightly lower temperature! Kathy Reichs relishes passing on these tricks of her trade in a very matter- of-fact way - she also has a book to promote.

There was a time when nobody wanted to hear about what she did at the office; now she is the centre of attention at parties. Her novel Deja Dead has already spent two weeks as Britain's bestselling hardback, emulating its success in America and Canada.

Deja Dead is a thriller based on 15 years working for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaire et de Medecine Legale in the province of Quebec. What Patricia Cornwell writes about, she does for real. She writes about her workspace where "the antiseptic gleam of the stainless steel never really eradicates the images of human carnage. The fans and disinfectant never quite win over the smell of ripened death."

"I am normally quite clinical," explains Ms Reichs. "I have observations and measurements to make. There is a report to be written too. Although I never want to dehumanise and become totally detached." Yet with her statistical analysis of bone lengths, taking microscopic sections and counting bone cells to age adults, she makes her job seem more like solving a puzzle. "You need to know the context of a find. Was it on the surface, was it buried? Was it in the water, how acidic was the soil? Did you have scavenging animals? If I have information along those lines I can date the body. However, once all the tissues are gone it is harder to tell whether it is 10 years or 30 years old."

Her tone is always that of a scientist. "I have a case at the moment, we know who it is, when she died and how. There are six bullet holes in her head. She was dismembered and thrown in a lake. The question here is what kind of tool was used. I will be focusing on the traces left by the knife or the saw."

I was surprised to discover that Ms Reichs has not yet decided whether there is life after death. Amazingly enough, someone who has to take all her street clothes off and wear surgical scrubs so that she does not reek of her most decayed customers seems never to have given the topic even passing consideration. When I ask if she thinks the previous owners of the bodies she is piecing back together might be looking down and watching as she works, Ms Reichs looks at me if as if I have arrived from another planet.

What, then, drives her to continue with what must be some very unsavoury cases: "I get a lot of satisfaction out of contributing to giving somebody an identity. To giving a family closure - your missing daughter is here, we've identified her. I hate to ever let somebody be buried as a Jane Doe. I also like going to court and testifying so a serial murderer can be got off the streets."

Her book brings this passion to life much better than she can ever convey face to face. Although there are moments when the plot creeks as she finds ways of bringing her forensic anthropologist character out of the laboratory and into the action, her writing is good. The great strength is that Ms Reichs knows her subject-matter inside out. "I testified on a serial case which gave me a theme for the book. The killer, who is now serving three life sentences, was arrested for one murder and admitted killing another woman two years earlier. He dismembered her body and buried it in plastic sacks in five different locations."

I wonder how she feels sitting in the witness box after she has spent hours and hours sifting through their gruesome handiwork. "I usually feel totally underwhelmed. You look at this nondescript little guy who could be your uncle."

Not all of her work involves foul play, she has been analysing the bones of a woman called Jeanne le Ber who died in 1714 and has been proposed for sainthood. "When she was 18 she went into seclusion and stayed there until she died in her fifties. She did two things: praying and weaving tapestries." They knew where she was buried but needed to know which remains belonged to Jeanne le Ber and which to her family. Kathy Reichs' job has been to make the identification. "The priests and nuns supervised the exhumation and we brought her to the lab. When you kneel a lot you hyper-flex your toes; we found the right arthritic pattern and a flattened heel. She also had lovely grooves in both her upper and lower incisors from year after year of pulling the thread through her teeth. By also establishing the age and sex, I had a positive identification."

There has been a cultural shift. We are not just fascinated by gory crimes but we want to get even closer to reality and be able to smell the rotting flesh. We want to overdose on all the authentic details from professionals who have witnessed everything. Is this a sign we are becoming an even sicker society or perhaps that we are at last prepared to be honest and look death in the eye? I hope it is the latter. Dying should not be taboo - after all, none of us is going to live for ever.

`Deja Dead' is published by Heinemann at pounds 10

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas