The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs

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The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs front cover

We’re at book 20 in the Temperance Brennan series (the first, Deja Dead, came out in 1997, for heaven’s sake!), and crime fiction’s favourite forensic anthropologist is stuck in South Carolina when a massive storm hits.

Luckily she and her cat, Bird, escape unscathed. The same cannot be said for a medical waste container that washes up on the beach at Charleston. It is found to contain two decomposed bodies, wrapped in plastic sheeting and bound with electrical wire. That’s not how any proper medical service would treat deceased patients, and besides that the discovery sets off a carillon of alarm bells with Tempe.

As already mentioned, she’s been around a while, and 15 years ago Tempe worked with her now lover Andrew Ryan on a case in Quebec which is still unsolved to this day. It involved a waste container found floating in the river and containing two skeletal bodies, one of a woman in her 30s, the other a child aged between eight and 10. Neither was ever identified and the case has haunted Tempe ever since.

Anyone familiar with this character will know that such a ‘coincidence’ will set her blood racing. Cue plenty of travel for Tempe, and even the cat, who protests loudly at being dragged from pillar to post, much to the annoyance of fellow air passengers – and in truth the Tempe and Bird scenes are a highlight in a book which at times can get a bit bogged down in technical detail. Be prepared for explanations aplenty, centring on DNA, genome editing and molecular genetics. These made my eyes glaze over and my fingers twitch to turn the page but if science is your thing, then fill your boots.

Not content with the bodies in the waste containers storyline, Reichs has other narratives to throw into the mix. Such as the elderly twin who asks Tempe to solve the mystery of her twin ancestors, and the case of the child adopted from Bulgaria who may or may not have lied about her age. Both muddy the waters somewhat and the latter in particular is hurriedly sorted out with little finesse, adding little to the overall narrative.

There’s also the small matter of a bacterium that’s gathering steam in South Carolina. Capnocytophaga (capno) is passed on by pet dogs and cats and at worst can eat human flesh – eeew! This book is set just after the COVID-19 pandemic so you can imagine how panicked the citizens on Charleston are.

But back to the bodies in the plastic boxes, and as Tempe hops from place to place she begins to piece together crumbs of information that add to her theory that although the cases are 15 years apart, they are connected. The question is how, and believe me, it’s mighty complicated!

How Reichs brings everything together is the mark of an accomplished crime writer and fans of this series will be happy at how things progress. Unlike some long-running series, the Tempe Brennan canon keeps the standards high and the tension ratcheted up to sometimes unbearable levels. She might be a paragon in her field of expertise, but Tempe can still be pretty stupid in other ways. She’ll always rush in without thought for personal safety and there are moments when you despair that she has learned nothing over the years.

It’s good to see Tempe and Ryan together though, and the running joke where he calls her cheesy pet names and she reacts unfavourably is guaranteed to bring a smile, even in the darkest and most danger-filled moments.

The Bone Code may be a little detail heavy, but overall it makes for an entertaining read that’ll keep you guessing. Wonder what’s in store in book 21?

Read our pick of five of the best forensic mysteries. Discover Tempe Brennan’s origin story in The Bone Collection, four novellas about her early days as a forensic anthropologist.

Simon & Schuster

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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