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Baring Bones

Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs has turned her grim work into a series of best-selling mysteries and inspired a hit television show.

In September 2001 forensic anthropologist and novelist Kathy Reichs (G72, 75) stepped onto what seemed like another planet. On the night shift, eerie figures in jumpsuits, breathing through respirators, probed tons of twisted steel and pulverized glass. These recovery workers braved contaminated air and the stench of methane gas as they searched the rubble for the remains of thousands of missing victims.

It was a scene that could have been out of one of Reichs' best-selling novels. Instead, this was the terrifying reality in New York City weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

"We were digging through debris of perfectly normal people," says Reichs of her work sifting through the ruins of the World Trade Center as a member of Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. "I'd find a driver's license or a photograph from someone's desk and not know if they were alive or dead."

Reichs' work as a forensic anthropologist puts her face to face with death on a normal basis. She splits her time between her home in Charlotte, where she works for the North Carolina medical examiner's office, and Montreal, where she investigates deaths for the province of Quebec. Her work has taken her all over the world, including to Rwanda to testify at a United Nations tribunal on genocide and to Guatemala, where she helped exhume mass graves and identify victims of the country's civil war.

"There are certain sights and smells and sounds and things that I experience regularly that some people could not handle," says Reichs. "Each of us has our own method for leaving the lab at the lab at the end of the day."

But in the mid-1990s, after working on a serial murder case, Reichs decided not to leave her work at the lab. Instead, she wrote a book about it. "People were always saying, 'What you do is so interesting,'" explains Reichs. "After you hear that several dozen times or a hundred times you start thinking, 'Well, maybe I will write a book.'"

To Reichs' surprise, her first novel, Déjà Dead (Scribner, 1997), met with great popularity. It burst onto the New York Times best-seller list and was later translated into multiple languages. From there Reichs has built an empire. Working at breakneck speed, she writes a book per year, infusing her plots with the kind of gore and meticulous science of detection that she deals with on the job.

"My books are not for the fainthearted," says Reichs, who currently is writing her 11th book, Devil Bones, which she expects to be released in late summer. "I do put in detail, because I think my readers like that, but I will not throw anything in for grisly sensationalism."

In fact, Reichs' books have a reputation for their realism. All of her plots are based on actual cases or experiences. Bones to Ashes (Scribner, 2007), the 10th and most recent book in her series, is based in part on Reichs' investigation into the death of an unidentified 5- or 6-year-old child whose skeleton has remained unclaimed in her Quebec lab since 1990.

Reichs says her books are part of a larger trend among mystery writers to take the traditional whodunit in a different direction. "What's new now is that the solutions are science driven, instead of just intuitive. And I think that's what's happening on TV as well."

Executives at 20th Century Fox Television picked up on the broad potential for Reichs' gritty novels. They have translated her concept to the small screen with the popular Fox show Bones. The program centers on Temperance Brennan, the main character from Reichs' books, whose work as a forensic anthropologist closely parallels Reichs' own career. In a twist, the television character of Tempe Brennan writes novels in her spare time about a character ironically named Kathy Reichs.

Besides being written directly into the show, Reichs leaves her mark on Bones' production as well. She reads and edits the scripts, making sure that the science in every episode is dead right.

Reichs credits her Northwestern education, including field opportunities in bioarchaeology and guidance from professors such as Jane Buikstra, Reichs' doctoral adviser in anthropology, for her success.

With her involvement in the production of Bones, her hectic writing schedule and casework as a forensic anthropologist, Reichs also learned a thing or two about multitasking. "Now it's the world of the crime lab, the world of literature and the world of Hollywood TV production," she says. "I always like doing more than one thing."

—Lauren Price (J08)

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Kathy Reichs in lab
Kathy Reichs works in her lab.Photo by Thierry Marcoux