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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.

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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...

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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/ .)


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