From the Forensic Files of Dr. Kathy Reichs
A Conspiracy of Bones provides a peek into the field of forensic entomology via a fleeting reference to Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani. Zombie ants. (Seriously. Check it out). Why mention ants here? Because I’m a bit like the wee buggers, my feelers always out and sniffing for fresh booty: a case at the lab; a newspaper or journal article; an incident related to me by a colleague. Anything that I do, read, hear, or see can be inspiration for the next Temperance Brennan novel.
My writing process unfolds in three phases. First comes the ant phase when my mind collects and stashes tidbits. Some info is so timely and compelling that a book practically writes itself. Other items must rest a while, intermingling and cross-pollinating until an idea for a plotline arises from the cerebral mix. Then I move to the paper phase, making lists, drawing charts, scribbling outlines, and testing whether the potential story has the muscle to grow into a book. What if this occurs, I ask myself. What if that? What setting? What contemporaneous happenings in our heroine’s life? When all the weaving and twisting and juxtaposing are done, and questions of plausibility have been considered and potential a potential winner has been selected, it’s on to the computer phase. Bum to the chair, eyes to the screen, fingers to the keyboard.
A Conspiracy of Bones was no exception. The ant gathering began years ago when a friend shared her misgivings concerning the sinking of the ferry, Estonia. Too busy with a new job to continue studying the tragedy, she offered me her trove of research materials. Intrigued, but unable to find that all important engine to drive a plotline, I let the idea lie dormant almost a decade.
Also, sleeping in my gray matter was an article I’d read about Somerton Man, a real-life death investigation and now a very cold case. Described as one of Australia’s “most profound mysteries”, Somerton Man’s body was discovered on a beach near Adelaide in the winter of 1948. All labels had been cut from his clothing. A pants pocket held a scrap bearing a Persian phrase meaning “ended”. Investigators tracked the scrap to a book containing indented writing – phone numbers and encrypted script. Theories were wide-ranging. Was Somerton Man a post-war refugee? An assassinated cold war spy? An eccentric local who’d overdosed or taken his own life? To this day the gentleman’s name and cause of death remain unknown.
Great stuff. I could imagine sinister links to the Estonia incident. But Somerton Man had a face and teeth and fingers. A corpse arriving in Tempe’s lab could very well lack such identifiers.
A third tidbit slumbering in the old noggin’, as Skinny Slidell would say, was a homicide case I worked on in the mid-nineties. The remains, found in a heavily forested area, were badly decomposed and scattered due to scavenging by bears. My skeletal autopsy suggested a white female in her forties. The profile matched that of a local woman missing several months. The victim’s boyfriend, a recently paroled felon, was eventually convicted of her murder.
Though far from my sole case involving animal damage to bone, the circumstances of this woman’s death touched me deeply. Every murder is wrong, but hers seemed doubly so. She had championed her killer’s cause for release from prison. He had thanked his advocate by taking her life.
The bear-scavenged remains had useful elements for a Temperance Brennan case: no features, no dentals, no prints. But for this novel I wanted our heroine in Dixie, not the northern woods or South Australia. While we have bears, feral hogs are a real nuisance in parts of North Carolina.
I envisioned a tragedy plagued by theories of treachery. A body bearing ominous clues. A corpse lacking identifiers. This trio could work. But what about context? What is going on with our heroine?
In the novella, First Bones, readers learned of the death of Tim Larabee, Mecklenburg County’s longtime Medical Examiner. Why not follow up on this misfortune and create a story arc as we dubbed them in the Bones writers’ room? How has this loss affected Tempe? Is the new boss an ally? Does the new boss appreciate Tempe’s expertise? Or, to the contrary, does this new person wish her ill? Good stuff. Next.
I began the nineteenth Brennan book at a time when bloggers and extremist talk show hosts were polluting the internet and the airways with hateful dialogue, unfounded conspiracy theories, and dangerous misinformation. When mainstream journalists felt compelled to fact-check the utterances of powerful figures. When the terms ‘fake news’ and ‘alternate facts’ had become common lingo. When listeners and readers were constantly forced to question the reliability of both the media and the media critics.
A national atmosphere of suspicion and doubt. What is real and what is not? A timely backdrop. But I also wanted to bring this sense of uncertainty down to a personal level.
That’s when I made a difficult decision. Like Tempe, I am a private person, reluctant to divulge my secrets or express my feelings. I would break that pattern. I would share with my readers a challenge that I recently faced. I would make an aspect of this story my own.
As some of you may know, I did not release a book last year. There is a reason I took time off.
Not long ago I was diagnosed with an unerupted cerebral aneurysm. Following its serendipitous discovery, my doctors monitored my brain like NASA tracks asteroids. There have been annual MRA’s and the occasional MRI, simple procedures to check for signs of change. For a while all was dandy, everything in place. Then, the little bubble decided to do some shape-shifting. I underwent an embolization, a procedure in which miniature metal coils are injected to block blood flow through the arterial wall. Since the surgery, I experience the occasional migraine, but otherwise all is well.
Bottom line. I have a brain oddity and headaches, so our heroine also has the dastardly duo. Do I worry about the aneurysm? Not much. Does Tempe? A bit more. And her fears about the state of her mind parallel the central theme of Conspiracy. What is real and what is not? What happens when the reliability of one’s judgment is questioned?
In Tempe’s case, what ensues when all hard data – her stock and trade – are taken from her? In Chapter 27, she says, “I am a scientist. I test hypotheses based on items I can observe, measure, weigh, and photograph. I‘d been left with none. Could I rely on my stored perceptions? Could I sort what was real from what was not?”
So. Take a maritime disaster, two separate forensic cases, an atmosphere of hate-mongering propaganda and faux news, a stressful work situation, and a personal medical calamity. Mix thoroughly. Tah-dah! A Conspiracy of Bones.