Crime lab secrets thrill the bestseller lists

Diona Gregory tells how a forensic scientist made an instant literary hit

IT IS THE stuff of every aspiring writer's dreams. Kathy Reichs's first novel, Deja Dead, was snapped up by the first publisher she sent it to. Now, in its first week of UK sales, it has topped the hardback fiction bestsellers chart, astounding the book trade in the process.

Deja Dead is a fast-moving crime thriller centred on the trials of Dr Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist in Montreal, who is hot on the trail of a serial killer. It is based firmly in reality: Reichs is a forensic anthropologist based in North Carolina and Montreal.

Yet the book has requiredmore than just talent to lift it to the top of the pile, since other books in the realistic-thriller genre are recognised to be equally well-written without managing to hit the headlines. It is a tale of sharp and aggressive marketing as well as skilful writing.

Reichs was extraordinarily lucky in that her manuscriptlanded on the desk of Patricia Cornwell's former editor, who identified it as more than a copy-cat version of Cornwell's creation, the forensic pathologist Dr Kay Scarpetta.

Then publisher Simon & Schuster moved into action - it published Deja Dead last summer and it stayed in the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks. Meanwhile, Heinemann, Reichs's UK publisher, plotted its marketing strategy to conquer a crowded but lucrative market.

A quote from a leading crime writer, Minette Walters, was obtained for the cover - "A brilliant novel. Unputdownable" - and repeated on the back. But what perhaps sealed the novel's fate was the message imprinted on the book: "As Good as Patricia Cornwell or Your Money Back."

Knowing that booksellers would discount a popular title, the book was priced at pounds 10, undercutting competing hardback crime novels, and, probably more importantly, enabling the book's designers to create a strong cover and ensure that its marketing message shouted at the browsing book-buyer.

Reichs was just as startled as the book trade by Deja Dead's rapid success but another book is already on the way. On leave from her academic post, she is writing a second Dr Temperance Brennan thriller for publication next summer.

Attracted to forensic anthropology by the practicality of the work, her down-to-earth approach makes her novel frighteningly believable: "I knew what I wanted to write about - I wrote about what I knew."

With a degree in physical anthropology, Reichs's career began with a teaching post at the University of Carolina, where she established her reputation as a specialist in bones. Soon the police started to beat a path to her door for expert advice. She is now one of only 45 registered forensic anthropologists in North America, regularly working in the lab on criminal cases as well as sharing her trade's gruesome secrets with trainee FBI operatives and Mounties.

Reichs admits that she uses Dr Brennan to express her own feelings about her work, endowing the character with her own sense of professionalism and humour. But she points out that she does not share some of Brennan's other traits: the character communicates with her children through telephone answering machines and is a recovering alcoholic.

Deja Dead has brought Reichs financial freedom, yet she continues her case work to "keep her hand in" and maintain the authenticity of her writing. Her advice for anyone who fantasises about writing a novel is simple: "Just do it. Sit down and write the book. Make the time." Success means that, for Reichs, finding the time might be the hardest part of a repeat performance.

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