Forensic Anthropology: From Crime Lab to Crime Fiction

Bones Author Kathy Reichs in conversation with Arsen Kashkashian

The longest-running scripted drama in the history of Fox TV is Bones, a forensic thriller with 246 episodes created by Kathy Reichs, a senior academic and forensic anthropologist. Speaking at ZEE JLF at Boulder, Colorado, with Arsen Kashkashian, General Manager of the Boulder Book Store, she discussed her passion for getting the science of forensic anthropology right when creating her award-winning television show.

Reichs evolved from crime lab to crime fiction with the release of her first book Déjà Dead and has recently published her 20th book. Her protagonist, Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan, is a part-time novelist and a highly-skilled forensic anthropologist who loosely resembles Reichs herself. Reichs’ dedication to writing and understanding humankind in all its aspects is apparent in her award-winning books.

‘My character, Temperance Brennan, takes her lumps. That’s the definition of a thriller versus a mystery. Your protagonist has to be in positions of danger or peril. I research everything. I try to keep every single detail accurate. Thriller-readers are sophisticated readers and if you do anything wrong, you’ll hear about it. If you have her turning right on a one-way street that doesn’t go that way, someone will let you know. If you have the safety on a Glock, someone will let you know that Glocks don’t have safeties although they can be fitted for safeties for the police,’ says Reichs.

Reich admits to being nervous when her first book was released. ‘It was set in Montreal. The characters were thinly disguised as people I knew. The only people who were annoyed were the ones not in the book! After that, they’d come by my lab and say “So, do you have any questions about DNA or blood splatter?” They were very good natured.’

When Reichs began writing Bones in the mid-90s, most people didn’t know what forensic anthropology was. Universities are now experiencing a rise in the number of applications to anthropology programmes and it’s her hope that she’s inspired women to go into the field or into science in general.

Reichs describes one of her biggest challenges as introducing the characters and the premise of each story in a fresh, new way each time without resorting to straight narrative. ‘This could be a reader’s first book or a reader’s 20th book and it has to be new, creative and challenging each time,’ she says.

When asked if she was ever surprised with the direction a book was taking, Reichs replied, ‘I know where it’s going; I know who did it and how it’s going to end,’ although she admits to having to plant earlier details to support her case or work through a scene that’s missing something.

The world of forensic anthropology has changed greatly in the past 20 years due to computerisation and DNA. Reichs notes DNA is the ‘big gorilla’ in every forensic lab. ‘Up until now it’s been used for comparative purposes only. You’d compare the sample and the suspect. Now, it’s predictive. I have a DNA sample and I can use it to generate a sense of what this individual might have looked like. Computerisation allows you to take extremely accurate measurements and compare your unknown skull to known populations. It’s fascinating,’ says Reich.

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