Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Real-Life Temperance Brennan: Kathy Reichs on a Case

It's a case of life imitating art--as well as art mirroring life--when it comes to bestselling author Kathy Reichs and her always-engrossing mystery series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

Since first springing onto the scene in 1997 with her debut novel, Deja Dead, Reichs has consistently delivered intelligent, unputdownable tales depicting the painstaking work that goes into piecing together the last moments of someone's life through the study of the bones left behind.

There's an excellent reason for the success of this series; these books are, of course, grounded in real science. Reichs herself holds the same dual positions as forensic anthropologist in North Carolina and Montreal, Quebec as does heroine Dr. Tempe Brennan, so she really knows her stuff. Fortunately for the reader, though, she manages to avoid the pitfalls that sometimes trap other experts who try their hand at writing--that of coming across textbook-dull, or of being patronizing. Instead, her Tempe is a fully-fleshed-out character with a rich an interesting life--an intelligent and successful professional woman, as well as one who is sympathetic and relatable in her personal life (while attempting to balance the demands of relationships with those of her career).  

Reichs isn't stingy about giving her readers enticing, suspenseful mysteries, either. Years of experience under her own belt have provided her with ample inspiration to draw upon for Tempe's cases... and as they say, truth is (often) stranger--not to mention more interesting--than fiction.

******
It's that type of real-life experience which is at the heart of a new television series on Investigation Discovery Network (ID), called "Hardcover Mysteries". Chronicling the journeys of eight novelists, each of whom has crossed over from the world of fact to the world of fiction, the series sets out to depict a real-life case which has had a profound impact on each author, then show how he/she has been changed or affected by it.

When offered the chance to view Monday night's episode of "Hardcover Mysteries" (featuring Kathy Reichs, no less) before it aired on TV, it was a no-brainer. I've been a huge fan of Reichs' books since the very beginning, and this sounded like a cool look at a little piece of her history. I wasn't disappointed...

Reichs' episode details a case from 1995. During a stint at her Canadian office, she became absorbed--along with everyone else--in following the mysterious disappearance of a 46-yr-old journalist named Louise Ellis. 

Sometime between running errands and making it to a birthday party, the woman had simply vanished without a trace along a deserted stretch of highway. Massive searches were conducted, and her husband and friends made appeals in the media for any info as to her whereabouts. One suspect was investigated, then cleared. When a second person became a suspect, the authorities found reasons aplenty to be suspicious... but what they didn't find was Louise Ellis. 

Reichs, meanwhile, felt especially drawn to the story. She was approximately the same age as the missing woman, and they seemed to share a number of personality traits as well as their professional drive and ambition. Perhaps most striking, though, was the fact that she was at that same time in the process of writing her first book (the aforementioned Deja Dead). She couldn't not be interested in the fate of a fellow writer.  

When the body was finally discovered, Reichs became more than just an observer, though; she became a participant, as she and a team were responsible for recovering the remains and trying to make sense of them. And, with art imitating life, she was also to find that this new role would inspire elements in the novel she was hard at work writing...

******

Alternating between present-day narration and interviews with those involved, actual footage from the era, and re-enactments of events, the story--and the mystery--unfolds gradually. It's a compelling look at  a horrific crime (including what led up to it and the aftermath) and the insights of those who experienced it firsthand. But more than that, it's also a fascinating look at an author in her own, "other" element... the real-life version of the fictional character we know so well. 

"Hardcover Mysteries" airs on Investigation Discovery Network (ID) Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT;  the Kathy Reichs episode airs November 22. Mystery, suspense, and true-crime aficionados will definitely want to pencil this one in on their calendars. (For more info on the series, visit http://investigation.discovery.com/tv/hardcover-mysteries/ .)


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Game of Cat and Mouse: The Secrets we Prefer to Keep


Inner demons... we all have them. Those things we wish we’d never done/said/thought, the choices we’d unmake (if only we could), and the internal battles we’re constantly fighting--all the things we’re ashamed of, but can’t escape. When it comes to our deepest, darkest secrets, we’ll go to great lengths to ensure they remain  hidden... and with good reason.
So, imagine that one day you receive a letter from a total stranger who claims to know your deepest, darkest secrets. To prove the point, you’re instructed to play a little game, something that, in person, would seem like a parlour trick: you’re to think of a number between one and one thousand, then to open a second, sealed envelope and read the contents therein... at which point you discover that the mystery correspondent has correctly guessed your chosen number. Out of a thousand numbers you could have chosen. 
Naturally, you freak out, thinking that if the impossible has just happened--if a complete stranger has inexplicably but accurately predicted such a random thing about you--then what awful, buried things might this person also know... and how?
More importantly, what is he/she planning to do with that knowledge? And, what lengths are you willing to go to, in order to keep your dark skeletons buried?   
Those are the questions facing retired NYPD homicide investigator Dave Gurney when an old college acquaintance phones him out of the blue one day, frantically requesting some advice, in newcomer John Verdon’s tour-de-force debut, Think of a Number.
Gurney has plenty of reservations about getting involved. He’s retired, for starters, living a tranquil existence in upstate New York with his long-suffering wife Madeline (and she certainly doesn’t want to hear that he’s considering anything resembling police work). And, frankly, he was never that close with his former classmate; they’d been in the same large circle twenty-five years ago, nothing more. 
Still, there are plenty of other considerations in favor of Gurney’s involvement. For one, he’s been going stir crazy; living in the country was always Madeline’s dream, never his. He is capable of incredible focus, and he has a real knack for making sense of bits and bobs of seemingly-disparate information--so much so that he cracked some of the biggest murder cases in the state during his years on the job--but there’s been nothing to apply that talent and intensity toward in the two years he’s been retired. There’s something hard to deny in his larger-than-life former classmate’s voice, too--an uncharacteristic fear and desperation to which he can’t say no. Perhaps the deciding factor, though, is the knowledge that seeing his friend would provide Gurney with a distraction from the inner turmoil that’s been threatening to overwhelm him recently. (Everyone knows that it's always easier to sweep a mess under the rug than to deal with it.) 
After reading the letters (poems, actually), Gurney is dismayed to realize that this is much more than just a challenging riddle or an elaborate practical joke... and that his friend has good reason to be worried (although he refuses to seek help from the authorities). Over the following days, the clever poet continues sending messages, each more ominous in tone than the last. Like a cat who's closing in on the mouse, he delivers taunts and subtle threats to his prey... creating a frenzy of confusion and fear. 
When Gurney's friend is suddenly, brutally murdered--abruptly changing the game from a clever puzzle to a bloody, violent crime--a horrified (and guilt-stricken) he goes to the police, (eventually) persuading them that they’re looking for more than just a run-of-the-mill murderer. He even agrees to act as consultant--much to his wife’s disappointment.
Before long, it’s not just his friend’s murderer he’s helping to track; two more bodies turn up under nearly-identical circumstances, with the same creepy messages ramping up the psychological terror prior to the victims’ murders. The poet is now a serial killer.
Gurney knows he’s messing things up with his home life by delving deeper and deeper into the case, yet he also knows that he can’t just walk away; using his mind in this manner--figuring out the mystery--is part of who he is, as essential as breathing. 

When the latest message targets Gurney specifically, the ex-cop knows there’s no alternative but to meet the madman face-to-face. He has no idea if he’ll walk away from the confrontation alive... because in the end, the final showdown won’t be about who can outwit whom, but about who is better able to face--and conquer--his inner demons.
******
Think of a Number is a psychological suspense novel which strikes the perfect balance between the terrors of facing an unknown evil and the turmoil of dealing with the ever-present darkness in one’s mind. In so doing, it successfully bridges the genre divide to become a powerful, moving piece of literary fiction in its own right. 
The real key to the book’s success is, of course, Gurney; he’s an incredibly-sympathetic character, an all-too “real” man struggling to make some sense out of his life in middle age and to figure out what the rest of that life might hold in store. His relationship with wife Madeline is believable and well-played, and their conversations--as well as all the pauses, looks, and other nonverbal communications which fill in the conversational gaps--ring entirely true. Gurney, like the rest of us, is far from perfect. He’s made his share of mistakes. He’s always placed such a high priority on work that his relationships have suffered. In so many ways, he’s feeling like a personal failure. Over the course of the case, though, he finally comes to the realization that--much like the art he’d been working on to counter the boredom of retirement--his life is actually still a work in progress... and that the power to change things is his, and his alone. 
In short, Think of a Number is a thriller that thrills and a psychological study that makes you think, and it--and author John Verdon--are the real deal.


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies!


Friday, November 5, 2010

Snowbound: The Frostbitten Fingers of Fear... and Murder

He’s like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, popping up at the perfect moment to do his thing (which typically entails saving the proverbial day). He’s the Timex of heroes, taking a licking (and another, and another), but continuing to keep right on ticking. And, in true Weeble-like fashion, no matter how many times he’s knocked down, he (eventually, anyway) bounces back up. He is, in a word (okay, two words), Mr. Reliable. 
Who is he? Why, he’s Jack Reacher, of course--the no-BS, ex-Army MP who regularly fixes problems and makes things hunky-dory again, all while pursuing a vagabond existence of roaming wherever the wind blows him, carrying all his worldly possessions on his back.
There’s never a scrape or a tight spot that Jack can’t--sooner or later--wriggle out of, never a trap from which he can’t spring himself. (Not that he’s invincible or anything; he bears plenty of scars for his troubles.) Years of experience combined with an ability to think and act rationally and to harness his powers of keen observation, have allowed Jack to hone his survival skills into something quite extraordinary.
Even Superman had his Kryptonite, though, and in Lee Child’s fourteenth entry in the Reacher series, 61 Hours, it appears that Jack may have finally met his match, as well.
While traveling as he often does--by hitching a ride, or, in this case, arranging a cheap, cash-under-the-table seat on a half-empty charter bus en route to Mount Rushmore--Jack has the grave misfortune to find himself stranded in a small, isolated South Dakota town... in the middle of winter... in the middle of a series of major snowstorms. 
Now, unless you’ve ever spent a winter in South Dakota (I have, btw), or another place with comparable weather patterns (which, again, I have), then you only think you know cold. And snow. There are few things as isolating--or as claustrophobic--as being surrounded by nothing but a frozen white tableau, or as frightening as being outside in that double-digit-sub-zero weather, when it feels as though every part of you is literally freezing. And the thought of something, anything, bad happening in such conditions? A whole new level of terrifying. 
Jack has, of course, experienced snow and cold before... but nothing like this, and not while being co-opted by the local police department for help with a huge problem. Battening down the hatches and waiting out the awful weather by hibernating indoors isn’t an option; the town of Bolton needs his help.
A gang of bikers has moved into an abandoned military facility nearby, and their sole source of income apparently comes from a massive crystal meth operation. They’ve been very careful, though, and the police haven’t been able to pin anything on them... until now, that is, when one brave, elderly woman who witnessed a big sale has stepped forward and agreed to testify.
Provided she survives until the trial starts in about a month’s time, there’s an excellent chance the gang member in custody will be convicted. Far more important, though, is the possibility of getting him to roll on his bosses; someone, somewhere--with considerably more smarts than anyone in the gang possesses--is obviously pulling the strings, and it’s that layer which the police hope to penetrate. Conservative estimates are that this operation is taking in millions of dollars... and a bust of that magnitude would put tiny Bolton, SD on the map. 
The key to successfully bringing everything down is clearly the old woman--but she’s stubbornly refused to leave town and go into protective custody, insisting on remaining in town in her ancestral family home, instead. The Bolton police are watching her and staying with her round the clock; they know that someone will be coming, sent by the real boss of the operation, to take her out. It’s not a question of “if”, but “when”. 
Due to a bizarre arrangement between the local cops and the new, nearby prison, one potentially-deadly problem looms: any sort of outbreak at the prison will, legally, pull every single officer from the police department (on- or off-duty), to the prison grounds to maintain a perimeter... a situation which would conveniently (for the bad guys) leave one old lady alone and defenseless.
But, even as Jack works with the police on figuring out how to penetrate the bikers‘ compound (in order to assess the magnitude of the threat), who the leaders of the huge drug operation are (trying to pinpoint from what direction and when the hired hitman will be coming), and making plans to adequately protect the witness from the certain danger headed her way, he’s aware that other forces are completely out of his hands. The killer will arrive, with little or no warning. One bad storm after another is rolling through the state, making almost any sort of travel (or escape or rescue) next-to-impossible. And, someone, somewhere in town, has been in contact with the bad guys... a fact which Jack and the police become aware of when the bodies start stacking up around them. 
Jack can feel the clock winding down and knows that things will come to a head soon... but he doesn’t know just how soon. In fact, though, less than sixty-one hours from the moment Jack’s bus swerved, veered off the road, and wound up in a snowdrift, it will all be over. 
61 Hours is typical fare from author Child; it’s the quintessential high-octane thrill ride with plenty of dizzying twists and turns, led once again by the ever-capable, battle-scarred Jack. As always, Jack’s military knowledge comes in handy, as does his ability to read people and situations with great perspicacity. His detachment gives him an edge; he doesn’t respond to things as so many people do, on a purely-emotional level, but rather, on a more rational one. 
At the same time, this is a very different Reacher tale. The ever-present countdown, for one thing, gives a heightened sense of urgency to all the goings-on... and the fact that we readers are privy to this information--while Jack isn’t--leaves us more-than-normally anxious about the outcome. We see a “softer” Jack here, as well, as he bonds with the old woman he’s guarding, and--via a series of phone calls--with a younger woman who now holds the job he used to hold in the Army (whom he calls when he needs some help answering questions he’s unable to answer). Watching this man who rarely (okay, pretty much never) opens up do just that, is interesting. We gain some rare insight into this outwardly-simple, inwardly-complex man. And, finally, there’s the ending, which is--without giving anything away--unexpected.
61 Hours adds up to a fantastic adventure, delivering everything you’d expect and hope for, and then some. I recommend grabbing a comfy pillow, a warm throw, and a mug of hot chocolate (or a pot of the bitter black coffee which Jack drinks copious amounts of), then settling in for an awesomely chilly--and chilling--read.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies