It’s been more than two decades since Tempe Brennan—the fictional alter ego of forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Reichs—first walked into the morgue and began cracking cases. Since then, the beloved character has sleuthed her way through dozens of bestselling novels and short stories, and even made the jump to television in the hit show Bones. Now after a few years away she’s back in the latest installment of Brennan’s adventures, A Conspiracy of Bones, just released in paperback.
Reichs, her creator, is one of only a hundred board-certified pathologists in the U.S. She has worked as a consultant for the FBI, various foreign governments, and the United Nations. The Tempe Brennan books are loosely based on her life, and, unlike most other thrillers, each one contains a crash course in state-of-the-art forensic science to go along with the intrigue.
In Conspiracy, for example, the breakneck plot turns on a faceless corpse which might belong to a Russian spy. By using advanced DNA sequencing, the protagonist is able to reconstruct the victim’s hog-eaten features and, eventually, solve the mystery of his demise. The book is also a tale for our times, featuring conspiracy theories, fake news, and even a real-estate huckster for apocalypse bunkers.
The novel also marks a return to form for Reichs herself, as it’s her first new Tempe Brennan adventure since 2016. The Daily Beast sat down with her to talk about the book, her recent globetrotting, and what her iconic creation might be up to next.
DB: Where does this book come from? What inspired you to write Conspiracy of Bones?
One of the themes is how can we trust anything these days? Tempe, because she's having health issues, is questioning whether she can trust her own perception. She's had a cerebral aneurysm, which was corrected with surgery, but is still having migraines that make her doubt her own reality. After a fire, probably arson, she also loses all of her physical data, which is her stock and trade, so she has to rely on what's in her head.
On another level, how can we trust what we hear on a daily basis in today's society? On the internet, in the media, coming from crackpots. And even coming from people in authority. How does the average person sort through what is real and what are alternative facts or fake news? Those are the central themes that inspired this book.
All in all, how close is the character of Tempe Brennan to Dr. Kathy Reichs? For example, Tempe often takes her work home with her—both physically and emotionally—do you do that as well?
Tempe gets a bit more involved. The hard ones, like child homicides, are tough to leave behind in the lab, but I think I'm better at distancing myself than she is. In this book, there’s a new boss in town, and she and Tempe have history: They do not get along. To identify the faceless man, Tempe must work as an outsider looking in, something that makes her literally work from home.
Your books, and subsequent TV shows, have promoted the concept of better justice through science since the beginning, often broadening the public’s knowledge. Talk about the responsibility to educate while entertaining.
It's important to get the science right. I'm writing murder mysteries, so the ultimate goal is to write a good story, but the solution is driven by science rather than just old-fashioned police work. I think that when the readers read these books, they like to learn something, and I want them to have learned properly.
A Conspiracy of Bones touches upon a fascinating display of facial reconstruction from DNA. What’s the most exciting innovation in forensic science coming our way?
DNA is the big gorilla in the lab. Of course, it's a very powerful tool in properly protected circumstances, but it used to only be used comparatively. As Tempe lectures to Skinny Slidell in the story, you couldn't use it in a vacuum. Now DNA is moving beyond that to where you can actually use samples to predict certain things: skin color, eye color, hair color, etc. And from that make probability statements [like] this person is probably from eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa. So that's the big shift, the big advance in DNA these days.
Before his recent retirement, your friend Lee Child always started writing a new novel every September on the same date. I’m wondering if you have any similar strategies. How do you approach a new book?
Because I’m on contract for one book a year, I start a new novel as soon as my editor receives the previous one. [Authors] talk about planners or pantsers, people who outline books as opposed to those who fly by the seat-of-their-pants. I outline the first eight to 10 chapters, then start writing. I know what the ending will be and what science will drive the story.
If instead of a well-known author you were starting out as a writer today, in 2020—what, if anything, would you do differently?
I would advise young writers starting out to get some training. To take courses in creative writing to learn how to do it right. I just sort of blundered through. I had no training. When I was in university, I always wanted to be in the science lab... I think if I had had [writing classes] at the outset it would have helped me a lot.
Lately in America we’ve seen a trend toward discrediting or disbelieving in science. Has that affected your work at all?
That's one of the points of the book. People can skew anything they want, put any theory out there on blogs or the radio. Sometimes they could be just crackpot theories like aliens at Area 51, but it can also be dangerous if they’re telling people not to vaccinate their children.
What is it about Tempe as a character that keeps readers and TV audiences wanting more?
Part of it's the science. In the ’90s for some reason, all of a sudden the whole world became enamored with forensic science. And I think it’s also her personality. I wanted to create a character who was approachable, who wasn't cold and perfect, so she has flaws. And I wanted a character with some humor, in particular about herself.
Pre-pandemic, you’d been traveling the world—from the South Pacific to the Bering Straits. How important is travel for the creative writer? Do you draw inspiration from these adventures or is it more about recharging your batteries?
I think it's both. I never write about a place I haven't been. Maybe all writers are like that—well maybe not sci-fi writers—but if I visit a place, I will often incorporate that setting into my stories. The book Grave Secrets was based on work I did in Guatemala, and Bones Are Forever is based on having gone to Yellow Nights in the Northwest Territories up in the Arctic. So wherever I go, I'm always on the lookout for information I can use in the books.
What does the future hold for the Bones series?
I don't want to give away too much, but the 20th Temperance Brennan novel will deal with someone who modifies the human genome for his or her own advantage.
Your last book was the standalone novel Two Nights. Any plans for more books outside the series?
People just seem to want Tempe. Which is not to rule out the possibility of doing another standalone or possibly doing another co-authored book with one of my two writer kids. I like to keep the possibilities open. Right now, I’m under contract for the 20th Tempe Brennan book, so that's what I'm working on.
Jeremy Kryt is a regular contributor for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Sierra magazine, Huffington Post, and In These Times magazine, among others.
August Norman is the author of Sins of the Mother, voted one of Suspense Magazine’s Best Thriller Novels of 2020.