Guest Blogger: Dalton Hassler, Undergraduate in Microbiology
Crime fiction novels are my favorite category of books. They consist of a complex plot, interesting characters, and a surprising plot twist. Many of the authors in this category have followed this formula to great amounts of success in the literary world. But, oftentimes, we as readers become conditioned to this formula and our enjoyment of these books fades overtime.
During the summer, I happened to stumble upon a crime novel that completely differentiated itself amongst its peers.
Déjà Dead is a novel written by Kathy Reichs that is unlike any other crime novel I’ve ever read. Many crime fiction novels tend to target a general audience that will be able to digest the material rather easily. Déjà Dead is a novel that targets an audience that has a strong background in scientific studies. Through strong prose, Kathy Reichs is able to write about these scientific methods and still keep the reader fixated on how these methods will help identify the killer.
(Warning: Spoilers may occur in the following paragraphs).
Déjà Dead’s protagonist is Dr. Temperance (Tempe) Brennan, a forensic anthropologist in Montreal. Her line of work brings her into contact with human bodies that have been badly decomposed by time, insects, and microbes. Since many of the bodies our protagonist is dealing with in her work have been found in the late stages of decomposition, it is difficult to determine a time frame as to when the death occurred.When a body is first found dead, there are a majority of aerobic bacteria flourishing in the body because there is still oxygen present. Once the oxygen is depleted, anaerobic bacteria will be found in large quantities. The bodies that are described in this book have been left for the elements to dispose of. Bacteria in the air and soil slowly erode the bodies' flesh until all that is left is the victims remaining bones. When our protagonist was conducting her examination, there were large amounts of anaerobic bacteria and fungi growing on the corpse, indicating the latter stages of decomposition.This information can lead to the determination that the body has remained undiscovered for quite some time and other processes need to be conducted to narrow down the time of death frame.
There are a myriad of procedures Tempe has at her disposal to help identify the human remains, but what I found most fascinating was the detail describing the remaining bones. Magnificently outlined in the book, Tempe is able to observe the bones and note that they have been hacked by a professional killer. Observed through a microscope, Tempe is able to determine the following: the weapon, blade length, and teeth spacing. These characteristics are eerily similar to a case that our protagonist covered years earlier and proof that a killer remains at large.
Interspersed throughout the scientific jargon is a plot line that will keep the reader’s attention. The protagonist is one readers can relate to, and the supporting characters help propel the plot to its ultimate conclusion. While the scientific methods explained in this book may bore or confuse some, I feel that the author did an outstanding job detailing the experiences our protagonist faced in the laboratory. Through vivid visuals and explicit sensory descriptions, I felt as if I were transferred to the medical laboratory and conducting this investigation on my own. Ultimately, I felt that the ending was too contrived but being a student in a scientific field I held a great interest in furthering my knowledge of forensic anthropology.
If you are someone who enjoys crime fiction novels and want to learn about the work of a forensic anthropologist, I highly recommend this novel. The basic formula for a crime fiction novel is still evident in Déjà Dead but learning about these scientific methods pushed this novel from ordinary to a must read.
Check out these novels written by Kathy Reichs and featuring Dr. Temperance Brennan.
This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.
Image Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory