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Boning Up 

Reichs' latest mystery digs deeper

Kathy Reichs is a woman with a very full plate. Her 10th Temperance Brennan novel Bones to Ashes came out in August, and a television show based on her main character is thriving in its third season on the FOX network.

And, as a practicing forensic anthropologist, she still answers the call to help identify remains and examine bones found all over the world.

In Bones to Ashes, Reichs digs deeper into the personal past of Dr. Temperance "Tempe" Brennan and the mystery is richer and more readable for it. This installment involves a Beaches-type story (and please don't let that put you off!) that really catches the reader's attention -- at least it caught mine -- because I think that many of us can identify with developing special and often lasting friendships during vacations, visits to relatives, summer camps and the like when we were children.

When Tempe was a child, she and her sister, Harry, spent summers at their mother's family's beach house on Pawleys Island, S.C. Tempe met Evangeline, the niece of neighbors, on the beach one day and they became friends, with their relationship extending over several summers. The girl was older and a bit exotic to Tempe -- named after the poem by Longfellow, Evangeline aspired to be a poet herself. The summer Tempe was 12 and Evangeline, 14, the latter girl disappeared. Her relatives still on Pawleys Island wouldn't tell Tempe anything other than not to come back to the house or look for Evangeline again. About all the young Tempe really knew about Evangeline's "other life" was that she, her mother and her sister were from Acadia, a remote, French-speaking corner of Canada. Despite pestering Evangeline's aunt and uncle and writing many letters to the home address she had, Tempe never heard from her friend again.

Flash forward 30 years and Tempe, at her lab in Montreal, is asked to examine a female skeleton unearthed in Acadia. Tempe can tell the bones are those of a young woman and becomes almost obsessed with thinking these might be Evangeline's bones. Meanwhile, her on-again, off-again beau, Detective-Lieutenant Andrew Ryan, needs Tempe's help with a series of cold cases, all involving either missing or murdered teenage girls.

Tempe, a recovering alcoholic, is nearly always a likeable character, although she tends to charge into situations that in reality might not be tolerated by law enforcement. But then that's kind of why we like her -- she goes ahead and jumps in where others may "fear to tread."

Especially intriguing for me, in this particular book, was an exploration of forensic linguistic analysis and how writing -- not handwriting but the actual words, phrases and sentences -- can be used to identify the writer/author of a poem or other piece of writing. During a recent talk and book signing here in Charlotte, Reichs mentioned that the forensic linguist she contacted for help in developing this part of the book -- and the person she based a character on -- turned out to be Dr. Robert Leonard, of Hofstra University and a former member of the rock/do-wop revival band Sha Na Na.

Reichs also talked about the books versus the popular television show, Bones. She said she thinks of the Tempe in the show as a younger version of the Tempe in the books. (In an inside joke on the show, Tempe is also a bestselling author and the main character in her books is named Kathy Reichs.) Reichs clearly enjoys working in both mediums, however different. A producer for the series, she said she works on every episode, and in one of last season's shows, she made a cameo appearance. She stated that she was reluctant at first but really enjoyed it in the end.

Reichs' work is often compared to Patricia Cornwell, and, on the surface, their approaches are similar. However, Tempe is a bit warmer and more congenial than Cornwell's medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. Both characters are strong, assertive women who tend to hide their doubts and fears from those around them -- which is part of why readers like them, I think.

Unlike a lot of installments in this and other mystery series, Bones to Ashes works to a great extent as a "stand alone" story as well. That is, there's enough background for the new reader but the story doesn't depend on -- or get mired in -- rehashing cases that have come before.

Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs

Scribner, 310 pages, $29.95

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