Kathy Reichs's Montreal office looks like a typical government-issue cubicle, except for a few startling differences. Above the usual dun-colored filing cabinets and the nondescript desk, several human and animal skulls sit on shelves along the windowless walls. Plunked in a large Tupperware container is a human skull with seven bullet holes in it. "Oh, that's part of a case I'm working on now," says Reichs, forensic anthropologist with Quebec's Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciares et de Médecine Légale. "Of course, my grandmother could do this one. There's no question of cause of death. But the body was dismembered, and different parts of it were found in bags. I'm looking at cut marks - which is what Tempe does in my book, too."
The book Reichs is referring to is Déjà Dead, a just-released thriller about a female forensic anthropologist named Tempe Brennan who helps track down a sadistic serial killer. Set in Montreal, Déjà Dead earned Reichs a cool $1.7-million two-book deal with Scribner in New York City, and foreign rights have been sold for editions in 15 languages. The Book-of-the-Month Club is featuring it as a main selection, and Reichs will tour 12 North American cities in a print, radio and TV promotional campaign. It is a fairly heady debut - especially for an author who is more used to writing scientific articles than suspenseful crime novels. But Reichs says she finds writing fiction "fun and liberating," and she is already eight chapters into the sequel.
A Chicago native with a PhD in anthropology, Reichs divides her time between teaching at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and writing and working at the headquarters of the Quebec provincial police in east-end Montreal (she first came to that city in 1989, on an academic exchange). The grim smoked-glass-and-chrome highrise building houses various labs and autopsy suites, as well as a morgue and evidence for all provincial police cases.
Reichs, the mother of three children ranging from age 19 to 26, appears to love her work. And she much prefers to talk about that, or about her new book, than her private life. The most she will allow is that her two daughters and her son are attending university in the United States, that all of them are pleased by her success, and that none is pursuing anthropology. She declines to reveal her age, and bristles at a question about her marital status, asking: "Why does everyone want to know that?" (In Déjà Dead, Tempe is separated from her husband, Pete, and has one rebellious daughter, Katy.)
Reichs is much more comfortable explaining what she and her fictional counterpart do. Simply put, a forensic anthropologist makes bones talk. When a skeleton is found or when a corpse is too badly damaged for a pathologist to identify the person, Reichs is called in to help. Her assessment can reveal a person's sex, race and probable age. While most of her work is done in labs, she occasionally visits sites to help recover or exhume bodies without damaging clues. She also conducts trauma analysis - determining just what kind of violent death occurred. "What attracted me to this area of anthropology was the practical aspect," Reich muses. "People's lives are affected by what you do and say - you can't be wrong."
Of course, all this grisly activity has provided Reichs with plenty of material for her crime writing. Déjà Dead uses details from the several dismemberment cases she has been involved in the past decade. The most notable was that of a St-Eustache, Que., man, Serge Archambault, convicted in 1993 of killing and mutilating three women. The manner in which the women were killed was so horrifying that the author could be accused of sensationalizing her plot were it not based on real life. Usually, the only contact that Reichs has with murderers is when she testifies at their trials. "I'm struck by how ordinary they look," she says. "You know, just a guy." And only once has she been unnerved, while testifying at a 1995 Ohio trial. When she concluded that a certain type of saw had been used to dismember a woman, the defendant threatened her, and extra security had to be brought in.
The book's gruesomeness is offset by straightforward descriptions of the scientific techniques used in such cases, everything from saw-mark patterns to X-ray micro-fluorescence and dental bite-mark analysis. The amount of highly technical information included in Déjà Dead - and, not least, the size of Reichs's advance - attest to just how much publishers are banking on the public's appetite for the science of crime detection. Patricia Cornwell's series about Kay Scarpetta, the fictional chief medical examiner of Virginia - with which Reichs's book will inevitably be compared - have proven phenomenally popular. The Richmond, Va.-based author is estimated to be among the world's highest-paid writers, earning about $11 million for each of her recent books.
Reichs, who has read some of Cornwell's books and pronounces the science in them to be "very good," thinks that increasing media coverage of crime has partly contributed to the fascination with legal medicine. "People have all these terms thrown at them every day - DNA matches, blood tests, all that. I think readers want to know how these techniques really work." But Déjà Dead is more than a story wrapped around scientific minutiae; it also features a likable heroine in a colorful setting. Reichs clearly loves Montreal, and Tempe loves it with the passion of the newly arrived. Recovering from an alcohol problem and her separation, she takes solace from the delights of the city - its historic architecture, its row houses with wrought-iron balconies, its restaurants.
The dialogue crackles with Tempe's black humor and the cops' sardonic references to the "maggots" they are pursuing. Tempe, of course, has to deal with the real thing. "Maggots will abandon a corpse when exposed to light," Tempe notes. "They were dropping from the body to the table, from the table to the floor, in a slow but steady drizzle. Pale yellow grains of rice lay writhing by my feet." In between, she finds time to check out detective Andrew Ryan, who does nice things to a pair of Levi's.
On Aug. 12, Reichs appeared on Good Morning, America to promote Déjà Dead. Back in her office the same day, she found a subpoena for the coming Ottawa trial of Brett Morgan, charged with the 1995 murder of freelance journalist Louise Ellis. She had examined Ellis's remains after they turned up near Wakefield, Que. Reichs also wanted time to prepare for a seminar on body recovery techniques she was due to conduct at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa on Friday, similar to the course she gives annually to FBI agents in Quantico, Va. Then, she received a phone call notifying her she might be needed at an autopsy the next day to help positively identify bodies. "Kuujjuaq?" she asked tersely, the name of the northern Quebec site where film director Jean-Claude Lauzon and TV star Marie-Soleil Tougas had been killed in an airplane crash two days earlier. "Brûlé" was the other word she used, French for burnt.
Reichs concedes that writing fiction might be her way of dealing with the horrors brought to her door. "Yes, it might be cathartic," she muses. "The thing is that even though you have to take a clinical approach to your work, you can't lose sight of the fact that it was a person."
Maclean's August 25, 1997