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Books and Authors: Kathy Reichs

October 16, 1997

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Kathy Reichs thought that ``Deja Dead,″ her best-selling mystery about a forensic anthropologist who gets almost fatally involved in her cases, was her first novel.

That’s how it’s been promoted as part of her $1.2 million, two-book deal with Scribner.

She realized only recently that the publicity was inaccurate. It’s really her third book _ just her first published one.

``I did write two little novels, longhand, about 75 pages, as a child. One was a novel and one was a romance,″ she says in a telephone interview from a hotel in Toronto, a stop along a 10-city book tour.

``I stumbled across one a couple of weeks ago. It was ghastly. I’m going to destroy it. Oh, boy. I was about 8, 9, 10. I was helping my daughter empty a dresser and there it was.″

Other than that brief and, until recently, forgotten foray into fiction, Reichs, 49, symbolizes the kind of author despised by people who write all their lives and never reach this level of fame.

Reichs, who took only required English classes in college so she could submerse herself in science, got a million-dollar deal with her first manuscript. The book quickly made it to The New York Times best-seller list.

``I think we all roll the idea of a book around,″ says Reichs, who wrote a partial manuscript and abandoned it several years ago.

But like almost every other author, Reichs had to fit writing around her other activities. So on the days she didn’t teach at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she wrote from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. She began the book in March 1994 and finished it in the summer of 1996.

In real life, she’s one of just 45 practicing, board-certified forensic anthropologists in North America. That means she examines recent skeletal remains (ancient ones go to archaeologists) for clues to identity and cause of death, then testifies in court.

She divides her time between UNC-Charlotte, where she’s taking a one-year leave to write her next book, and Montreal, where she works with the Laboratorie de Sciences Judiciares et de Medecine Legale for the province of Quebec.

She consults with North Carolina’s chief medical examiner and teaches at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. And she’s been appointed external reviewer for the Armed Forces for the lab in Hawaii that identifies remains that come back from Southeast Asia.

In keeping with her science background, she kept methodical records for her book. She plotted the book chapter by chapter and kept time line, date and character files.

From this record-keeping came the character of Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist who also divides her time between UNC-Charlotte and Montreal. Tempe, as she’s called, has one daughter who wants to live in college, a best friend who’s unreliable, a marriage on the rocks and suspicions that a serial killer is on the loose in Montreal.

``I took a long, hot bath and fell into bed at ten-thirty,″ Reichs writes as Brennan. ``Alone in the dark and quiet I could no longer suppress the thought. Like cells gone mad, it grew and gathered strength, finally forcing itself into my consciousness, insisting on recognition. The other young woman who’d come to the morgue in pieces. I saw her in vivid detail, remembered my feelings as I’d worked on her bones. Chantale Trottier. Age: sixteen. Strangled, beaten, decapitated, dismembered. Less than a year ago she’d arrived naked and packaged in plastic garbage bags.″

From there, Brennan risks her life to investigate her suspicions, not shared by the Det. Luc Claudel, who’s in charge of the case. She digs up bodies alone at night and almost dies in the process.

Those aren’t risks that Reichs, or any other forensic anthropologist, would take. ``It just really isn’t done,″ she says, except by heroines in fiction.

For example, after an appearance on ``Good Morning America″ show during which she discussed the always-popular breakfast topic of dismemberment, she got a letter from a woman in Oregon. She believes her brother is wrongly imprisoned in the death of his girlfriend, whose handless and headless body washed ashore in Nags Head in 1991.

She sent Reichs stories about other dismemberment murders. Reichs was intrigued because she has the body of an unidentified woman, who has cut marks at the on her neck and the base of her skull. The woman was either decapitated or someone slashed her severely, Reichs says.

But she isn’t investigating. All the information will be forwarded to police.

Not to say that there aren’t real dangers associated with her job _ so many that she declines to discuss her personal life.

``I testify in court,″ she says. ``And what I have to say is not usually what the defendant wants to hear. So I do have concerns. And the defendants are there because they have been in fact accused of violent crimes.″

She testified in the case of an Ohio man who was accused of killing his girlfriend and dismembering her. She concluded that cuts from the suspect’s saw matched the cuts on the victim’s bones.

Although Reichs didn’t overhear, the prosecutor said the defendant threatened to kill her. Extra security was brought in, and Reichs was advised to stay in the witness box if he became violent.

When trying to decide how many words to give to Brennan’s technical expertise and how much to character development and story, Reichs considered the books she enjoys.

``When I read a book, I want a good character, a good story. But I want to learn something ... enough that people really could get a feel of being in a morgue, at a crime scene or at an autopsy _ enough detail without crossing that line into sensationalism.″

She writes in the book of one autopsy: ``I could still close my eyes and see the jagged edges of the lacerations on her scalp, evidence of repeated blows with a blunt object. I could recall in minute detail the bruises on her neck. I could visualize the petechial hemorrhages in her eyes, tiny spots left by the bursting of small blood vessels. Caused by tremendous pressure on the jugular vessels, they are the classic sign of strangulation.″

Comparisons between her book and Patricia Cornwell’s, whose heroine, Kay Scarpetta, is a pathologist, are inevitable. And Reichs praises Cornwell’s books for their accurate research.

But there are differences, she says, not the least of which is the background of the authors. ``I don’t have to research it,″ she says. ``I do this every day.″

Among mystery writers, Reichs enjoys reading Sara Peretsky (V.I. Warshawski), Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone), Janet Evanovich (Stephanie Plum) and Robert Parker (Spenser). The highlight of her book tour comes at the end, in November, when she appears at two author dinners with the queen of the mystery genre, P.D. James.

That’s heady stuff for a woman who sent her book, unsolicited, to a friend of a friend of her daughter’s who was a junior editor at Scribner. Within a week, she had an offer.

``I thought it was a publishable book,″ she says. ``But you’re not a good judge of your own work sometimes. But I thought it was better than some of the stuff I was reading that was in print. I had no idea they’d be quite that enthused about it.″

She’s in the eighth chapter of her second book, which will take place in Charlotte and Beaufort, S.C. And she does have concerns about that repeating the success of ``Deja Dead.″

``I have to do it again,″ she says. ``And I’m not completely sure how I did it the first time because I’m not a writer. I’ll just try to do it the same way because that worked.″

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