Author Kathy Reichs on weaving grisly real-life cases into her novels

As a forensic anthropologist, bestselling novelist Kathy Reichs has been at the coalface of death.

Examining dead bodies at mortuaries, exhuming skeletons, picking off insects and becoming immune to the stench of corpses are all elements of the job she’s encountered over the years.

Over her career, she has helped identify human remains from 9/11, World War Two and the Korean War, and travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN tribunal on genocide.

Not much spooks the 74-year-old, creator of the Temperance Brennan novel series and producer and writer of the hit TV series Bones, which was based on Ms Reichs’ characters and work, and ran on Fox TV for 12 years.


On some level, she got used to the smell of death when working on cases, she reflects.

“You know, at Thanksgiving, you come into your home and smell something wonderful cooking, but after an hour you don’t smell it any more, because your nose numbs to it. It’s the same with bad smells. There are some cops I know who would put coffee grounds under their noses. I never did that. The rooms where I was working had specific ventilation systems for particularly bad cases – we called them the stinky rooms.”

Her wealth of experience has provided a rich harvest of stories, which she has made into bestselling novels starring her forensic heroine Temperance (known as ‘Tempe’), a divorced former alcoholic with a daughter and personal problems.

The latest, Cold, Cold Bones, her 21st in the series, sees Tempe find a box on her porch containing a fresh human eyeball, with GPS coordinates to a macabre discovery. More killings follow, and when her daughter Katy disappears she suspects someone is targeting her.

Read: Vanessa Frake: My life among the serial killers

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“It goes back and recaps a lot of her career, revisiting many of her older cases – I thought my return readers would get a kick out of recognising that,” Ms Reichs explains.

Does the book mirror the sort of cases she’s worked on?

“I’ve done some cases involving serial killers playing out their own malignant fantasies,” she remembers. “I don’t think I’ve ever been sent something sinister, although I’ve been sent letters from prisoners who went to jail partly because of my testimony. I’m told that my books are very popular in prisons, and way back I taught in a maximum security prison for five or six years.”

These days, Ms Reichs is virtually retired from forensic anthropology, although she is currently indirectly consulting on a case in South America, and will be attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Science – so she still dips her toes in the water.

She’s been married to Paul, a lawyer, for more than 50 years, and divides her time between her home in North Carolina, where she used to work for the office of the chief medical examiner, and a beach house in South Carolina, where she spent lockdown with her two daughters and four of her six grandchildren.

Read: Why are we so obsessed with true crime?

“We just hunkered down. It was restricted, but I was restricted with my favourite people in the world,” she says.

Having seen the worst humankind can do, she says she was very careful about personal security during her earlier career, when her children – Kerry, Courtney and Brendan – were younger, avoiding any pictures or locations in which they were staying being made public.

“When working on cases of children, my kids would tell me I was much more restrictive. The first case I did was a child of five or six who went missing in a thunderstorm. Six months later they found this little skeleton in the woods. You really have to develop a mental technique of leaving work at the door when you get home.”

She never had a problem detaching herself from the terrible cases she worked on, she recalls.

“You have to have a mindset that you cannot become emotionally involved with the victim, or you’re not going to be able to do them any good,” she explains. “In the long run, that’s going to be the best for the victim getting justice if it goes to court.”

She doesn’t dwell on cases, but says the most difficult memories are of those she didn’t solve.

“But when you can give the family answers, testify in court and get somebody off the streets who was responsible, that was satisfying.”

Inevitably, her own experiences seep into the novels.

“I remember the first one, which I used for Déjà Dead [her first novel, published in 1997] was a serial murder case in Montreal. A man was stalking and keeping notes on women. When he was finally caught, he admitted to having killed another woman two years earlier – dismembered her, and buried her in five locations. I worked on those exhumations and the analysis of their bones. The pattern of dismemberment gave me that core nugget of an idea for the storyline in Déjà Dead.”

Aside from cases, she also had a health scare which she weaved into her work. In a previous novel, A Conspiracy Of Bones, Tempe is recovering from neurosurgery following an aneurysm. Ms Reichs too had been diagnosed with an unruptured cerebral aneurysm some years earlier.


“They just found it serendipitously during a routine check. They monitored it for several years and there was no change. Then my neurosurgeon said there had been a tiny little change, so they put little coils in there which block it off. This was five or six years ago.”

She goes for an annual MRI to monitor the situation, and says the experience was food for thought. “It gave me a better awareness of mortality. It happens to people all the time, when they don’t know they have an aneurysm and then it blows, or they have a clot or a pulmonary embolism. I feel fortunate in that I know what’s going on inside my head, because I get to see pictures of it every year.”

As for TV forensic shows, she agrees that given the huge amount of crime drama on our screens, it’s probably more difficult for thriller writers to shock and surprise their readers.

“I don’t watch it, so I’m not sure what’s been done, but there’s so much of it out there now. When I started writing in the mid-1990s, there really wasn’t,” she says.

Read: How do police forensic scientists investigate a case?

“Occasionally my daughter and I like to watch docu-dramas about true crime, but it’s usually focused on the forensic end of it. I don’t watch scripted dramas, because they make so many mistakes and it’s annoying.”

Cold, Cold Bones by Kathy Reichs is published by Simon & Schuster. Available now.

Are you a fan of crime novels? Who is your favourite crime writher? Let us know in the comments section below.

– With PA

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