Both a forensics expert who has seen -- firsthand -- the aftermath of murderers and a novelist whose heroine tracks villains like the "Blade Cowboy," Kathy Reichs has some ideas about what the face of evil looks like: ordinary. "I see the perpetrator across the courtroom when I'm testifying. Generally, I'm underwhelmed," she said in a 2000 interview published on her web site." I'm always shocked by how totally normal they look. They look like my Uncle Frank, usually."
Reichs mulled over those experiences for about seven years before deciding to apply her ideas to fiction. Out came Déjà Dead in 1997, introducing mystery fans to a new but, more likely than not, recognizable heroine: forensics expert Temperance Brennan, a fortyish, recovering alcoholic on the run from a wobbling marriage. Brennan – a sort of mix between Nancy Drew and Quincy – is also something of a hothead, prone to marching off on her own when she runs afoul of a sexist male cop. This is the kind of woman who would sit down to brunch with Vic Warshawski, Kay Scarpetta, or Jane Tennison, if any of them did brunch.
As a forensic anthropologist for the state of North Carolina, as well as the province of Québec, Reichs draws heavily from her own experiences standing over the autopsy table. Her novels -- Death du Jour, Deadly Decisions, Grave Secrets and the like – are packed with the kind of well informed clinical details that make critics take notice. "The doctor clearly knows a hawk from a handsaw," wrote The New York Times about one of her books.
She also built some parallels to her own biography when creating Tempe Brennan. Both women are forensic anthropologists with the unlikely dual addresses of North Carolina and Canada. But Reichs rolls her eyes when asked about the comparisons. "Personally, she's completely her own person," Reichs told USA Today in 1997. "She gets physically involved. She takes risks I've never been tempted to take."
Reichs was editing forensics textbooks when she began toying with writing a novel. The initial result, she said, was a dud: slow, boring, and in the third person. But it picked up steam when she came up with the Brennan character. Inspired by friend and medical examiner Bill Maples, author of Dead Men Do Tell Tales, she sat down to write, meticulously drafting an outline of her story and getting up early to write before teaching classes at the University of North Carolina. It took her two years.
The effort paid off when her manuscript made the rounds of the Frankfurt Book Fair. A heated auction won Reichs a million-dollar, two-book deal.
Critics and readers alike loved Tempe. Wrote the Library Journal, "Despite her ability to work among fetid, putrefying smells that 'leap out and grab' and her 'go-to-hell attitude' with seasoned cops, Tempe is as vulnerable as a soft Carolina morning." And People magazine said, "Reichs not only serves up a delicious plot, she also brings a new recipe to hard-boiled cop talk."
Over chicken salad lunches with newspaper reporters, Reichs will casually talk about dismembered bodies, maggots, and concerns for her children's security in light of some of the unsavory characters she'd testified against. But then she'll confess her true idea of a waking nightmare. "[My] idea of horror would be to sit in a little gray office all day and add up columns of numbers," she told USA Today. "I say to people, 'How do you do that?"'
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When she was a child, Reichs loved both the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, as well as books about such far-flung places as Easter Island.
One of the reasons she is Québec's forensics anthropologist is because she is one of the few in the profession who is fluent in French.
Among her favorite books are the science fiction series the Hitchhiker's Guide Douglas Adams. "It's one of the few things I re-read because it's just nothing to do with anything I do," she has said.
She avoided college literature courses to concentrate on science.
In 2005, Fox TV launched Bones, a forensics/police procedural inspired by Reichs's life and writing. In a neat twist, the main character, Temperance Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist who, as a sideline, writes thrillers about a fictional anthropologist named Kathy Reichs!
Kathy's daughter, Kerry Reichs, made her literary debut in 2008 with the romantic comedy The Best Day of Someone Else's Life.
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Kathy Reichs had to say:
The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams -- Pure hilarious fun.
The World According to Garp, by John Irving -- Made me laugh and made me cry.
Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser -- Wonderful biography.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins -- Terrific characters. Wonderful love story. I like everything Robbins writes.
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut -- Actually, I like everything by Vonnegut, too.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris -- Shows how really good a thriller can be.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte -- A classic I re-read every few years.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry -- McMurtry is another author whose every work I have read -- I also loved The Last Picture Show trilogy and the Terms of Endearment books.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller -- Read this one quite a few summers ago. Laughed out loud.
A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood -- Normally while traveling, I read something about the place I am visiting. I read this book all the way through China one summer -- could not put it down.
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