Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Reichs Stuff

Mortal Remains (aka Spider Bones) 2010.
By Kathy Reichs.
William Heinemann Publishing.
ISBN: 978-0434014712

I’ve always liked Kathy Reichs’ slick tales of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and the way she helps solve crimes by clues recovered from the bones of the dead. Her character is very much the “bone” version of Cornwells’ Scarpetta character but with maybe a younger and less authorative feel about her. Every Christmas time I read the new Patricia Cornwell followed straight away by the latest Kathy Reichs and every year I’m hard pressed to figure out which one I enjoyed more. Sometimes Scarpetta, with her regular bag of well-worn characters and her niece Lucy, gets my vote. Other times it’s Tempe Brennan with her on and off relations with Detective Ryan that gets under my skin the most.

This year I was a little disappointed with the Reich novel, although to be fair I wasn’t 100% into the Cornwell either (and I’m damn sure these ladies can’t like being compared to each other... sorry ladies).

Let’s get one thing straight though... before I get into this. The Temperance Brennan who populates these brilliant novels is not the same Temperance Brennan who populates Kathy Reichs’ TV series Bones. I saw a couple of these once and was quite shocked by how much the Temperance Brennan in the TV show is just not the Tempe I know from the books. Apparently, I’m reliably informed, the Tempe in the TV show is based on, or perhaps that should read “inspired” by the real life Kathy Reichs who really is all those things that Tempe Brennan is. But the characters in the novels and the TV show have different regular characters, different backgrounds and history and, as I was made painfully aware when I tried to watch a couple of episodes... completely different personalities.

My Tempe Brennan is the Tempe from the books... and I’ll stick with her, thanks very much.

Mortal Remains was released in America under the title Spider Bones which, given the pattern of the titles of the previous novels in the series and the fact that one of the (dead) characters was called Spider... makes a whole lot more sense than the “catch all” title of Mortal Remains. I don’t know why the publishers decided to change the title for the UK market but it must have been done in something of a rush because, in the Foreword and Preface, the author is still referring to the book by its American title Spider Bones.

Nomenclature aside, however, the book tells the story of Temperance Brennan’s investigation in Hawaii with her daughter who is recovering from a bit of a shock to the system and with Detective Ryan and his “problem” daughter from his ex-wife. The story itself takes on the usual twists and terms with a couple of action sequences thrown in for the ride and, at the end, justice is served and we’re still all none the wiser as to how the Brennan/Ryan relationship is going to go.

The book is not as entertaining as some of the earlier entries in the series, nor does it have the scope of earlier novels like Cross Bones (where the action and danger hots up as Tempe has to try to identify if the old skeleton found on a dig in Israel is, in fact, the bones of Christ), but it does hold true to the standard, modern pulp formula of using cliffhangers, or what they have become, to keep the reader turning the pages... and nobody does this quite as well as Kathy Reichs.

It’s funny. When I was thinking about what I was going to write in this review, I read a blog by one of the people I follow on twitter @buckocowboyland (you can read that blog here) and it was talking about the old cliffhanger serials of yesteryear. This got me to thinking about those old 30s Doc Savage pulps that I absolutely love reading and how their would always be an absolute corker of a cliffhanger at the end of every short chapter to keep the readers reading. Both Cornwell and Reichs do the same thing but in a, slightly, more subtle way. They don’t use blatant cliffhangers but they do use a kind of foreshadowing of future events to keeper the readers momentum. Phrases along the lines of “When we opened up the rib cage and saw what was inside our eyes met and we both registered shock” or “Little did I know that the next three hours would change the course of the whole investigation for good” are planted right at the end of a chapter to keep the reader wanting to know more and it’s this kind of hint at future knowledge in the character’s travels that is, in many ways I believe, the modern evolvement of the old cliffhanger endings. Cornwell seems to have cooled it down a little the further down the line she gets, although there are still traces of these to be found in her novels at certain key points. Reichs is even less subtle about using this technique and still peppers quite a lot of these around and about in her novels.

But whether these things are done subtly or not, it doesn’t matter. The darn things work and once you start reading one of these things you really aren’t going to want to put one of these down for very long.

The other thing that’s become very unsubtle about the Brennan books is the sheer volume of the pop culture references slipped into the text. Reichs’ books have always had these and they certainly give the novels a hipper, younger feel to them than the atmosphere created in Cornwell’s Scarpetta books, but it’s beginning to get a bit overwhelming now. There are more cinema, TV and musical references in this one than I could comfortably shake a stick at and this kinda reaches it’s zenith here when Reichs has her lead character name check the TV series of Bones in this novel. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of “breaking the fourth wall” and am always quite happy to accept these kinds of shenanigans as an acceptable artistic decision... honestly people, I’m a big fan of John Byrne’s initial runs on The Sensational She-Hulk (for the three or so of you readers who might know what the heck I’m talking about there ;-), so it’s really something I’m happy to tolerate and entertain and welcome with open arms. But this one just smacks too much of product placement for your own brand image and it quite popped me out of the novel when it happened... and not in that good, Godardian way either. This felt kinda wrong.

Also, since I'm on the subject of referencing other material, I feel that Reichs dropped the ball a little bit in that, since the majority of this novel is set in Hawaii, she could have reminded the readers of another famous fictional crime-fighter who lived in Hawaii... namely Charlie Chan!

All in all, though, Mortal Remains/Spider Bones is another corker of a page turner from the bone-grinding mind of Kathy Reichs and regular readers will know just what to expect with this installment... it’s not her best but it’s still very entertaining... Temperance Brennan has definitely retained her sense of humour after all the crap that’s happened to her in the course of her adventures. New readers may not want to sample this one as a jumping on point though and would be best to start a lot earlier in the series... preferably with the first novel, because... well, why wouldn’t you want to start at the beginning?


  1. Start at the beginning, I agree! I'm going to look for these on this side of the pond. I also admire the way these genre writers can simultaneously ratchet up the cliffhangers from chapter to chapter, heighten the mystery/suspense/horror arc from page 1 to page whatever, and ALSO carry out over volumes an emotional storyline, such as how two detectives' relationship will work out, or a one detective's relationship with family, or inability to form connections. Really marvelous.

    There was a whole long bookshelf of Doc Savage books in our family room growing up. Everyone read them, from Dad to me, although I didn't acquire a pulp taste until later. Man of Bronze!

  2. Yeah... those Doc Savage novels are REALLY hard to get ahold of over here. Been scouring the second hand bookshops for them since the mid-70s and managed to pick up about 80 of them so far.

    So... only another 100 or so to try to get ahold of then! ;-)

    Thanks for your comments!