Think “Southern-fried forensics.” These are gruesome science-based crime novels that careen at rough-neck speed and are set in the hot, hot Southern United States.
Start with Patricia Cornwell.
Her fictional Dr. Kay Scarpetta has become a household name since the inaugural, and multiple award-winning, crime novel Postmortem was published in 1990. The heroine is a forensic pathologist based in Virginia; the author once worked in a chief medical examiner’s office, as well as covering the crime beat for a newspaper.
Scarpetta has the usual problems that confront detectiving sorts — a niece who needs mothering and protection (from the bad guys who target her to get at Scarpetta), man troubles, and her own character defects.
In between, there’s work, an endless run of corpses that must be identified, the method of murder diagnosed, and the killers brought to justice. The books are well known, so enough said.
Except, that is, for the fifth in the series, The Body Farm (1994), a tale that brought fame to a third party. The Body Farm is a real and grisly place, based out of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Anthropological Research Facility collects up dead bodies (some donated to science) and watches them rot in various odd ways. All for the greater good.
In this novel, an 11-year-old girl is found a week after her disappearance, and the autopsy is botched. Scarpetta and friends are called in, with investigators convinced the culprit is a serial killer who has taunted them before. The plot is filled with lies, confusion, false trails, odd moments and surprising discoveries. Add dollops of jealousy and espionage (and have a brief, bitter laugh at the pre-911 mindset).
Despite the book’s title, the farm is not a main character. But Scarpetta calls on a Body Farm scientist, Dr. Thomas Katz, to test out a scenario that could give insight into the child’s death.
The real-life Katz is a chap by the name of Bill Bass, who founded the Body Farm some 30 years ago. The notoriety gained from Cornwell’s book led Bass to his own populist writing career. He teamed up with journalist Jon Jefferson to write Carved In Bone (2006), which launched its own series of Body Farm crime novels, starring the crime-fighting anthropologist Dr. Bill Brockton. Brockton is the sort of guy who says: “Over there, we’ve got a decomposition experiment that’s comparing cotton clothing with synthetic fabrics.”
Brockton has a son who needs fathering, woman troubles, and his own character defects. Hilariously, a scientist who doesn’t think twice about boiling up bits of body, scraping off recalcitrant flesh, and grinding up the leftovers in a garburator… gets carsick.
The book is dedicated to Cornwell, “who made [The Body Farm] famous” (and the phrase “Southern-fried forensics” was coined by a critic for Carved In Bone).
A body is found in a cave, so old the features have melted. But it’s definitely the victim of murder.
Brockton is called in to consult in the land of the hillbillies, small-county Tennessee, where it’s impossible to tell the good guys from the bad. This is an insular world where the economy is based on illegal drugs and cock fighting.
Brockton is from-away; it’s hard to get any traction on a case when everyone clams up as soon as you walk up. (Consider Cormac McCarthy’s Child Of God as a companion read, a terribly dark and violent 1973 novel set in roughneck Tennessee that is beloved by critics.)
Carved In Bone is a New Arrival; others in the series can be found in the fiction stacks. The Body Farm books are a “must read” recommended by Lennoxville Library volunteer Donna Berwick: “Found a new series for fans of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell,” she notes. “The Body Farm novels written by Jefferson Bass, which is the nom de plume of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the real founder of the Body Farm… so the science is gruesomely correct.”
Ah, Kathy Reichs. Another popular Southern U.S.-based author, she’s a forensic anthropologist for the State of North Carolina. Deja Dead (1997) was the first in her series of best-selling crime fiction, introducing readers to Temperance Brennan (who has a daughter who needs mothering and protection, man troubles, and her own character defects).
Brennan also spends her time staring and prodding at bones. Bare Bones (2003), the sixth in the series, has our heroine preparing to go on vacation with a hot hunk, only to careen from one dead body to another. A newborn burnt to a crisp, a plane explosion, buried bags of gore… Brennan misses outbound flight after flight.
All Reichs novels are fast, satisfying and a bit gory. This one features a conservation angle that will get animal lovers up in arms.
Reichs has an added Quebec connection. Both she and her heroine commute here regularly, as consultants with the province’s Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Medecine Legale. Indeed, Reichs and Brennan share many personal and work traits (although Reichs insists she’s not an alcoholic!).
Note that the Temperance Brennan in the Bones TV series is a different character than the one portrayed in the books.
Reichs has also begun a new narrative, this one for Young Adult readers, written with son Brendan Reichs.
The Virals series stars 14-year-old Victoria (Tory) Brennan, the daughter of Temperance’s nephew. A group of five teens, boys and girls, are infected by some sort of lab-created supervirus that is rewriting their DNA. They’ve become connected somehow, turned into a human wolf pack, and can communicate with the family wolf-dog hybrid. They have a secret clubhouse kitted out with high-tech gadgetry, and use their gifts to fight evil.
The fourth novel, Exposure (2014), can be found in New Arrivals. Friends have been kidnapped. In between sniffing out the bad guys, the Virals must deal with high school jealousies and drama, mean girls, and suspicious rivals. Not to mention hiding their glowing eyes from the cops.
Additionally, one of their own, Ben, appears to be spiralling out of control, as do their powers.
No high-level forensics here, but there’s some science and lots of action, adventure, and teen angst. Yes, it’s set in the American South. So serve with sweet tea, black-eyed peas and okra.