Reichs, a forensic anthropologist has been writing what she knows since 1998’s best-selling Déjà Dead, creating a winning formula in the character of forensic anthrologist Temperance “Tempe” Brennan. It is a recipe for success that Richard King, co-founder and former manager of Paragraphe Bookstore, would clearly like to emulate. King’s first novel, That Sleep of Death, relies heavily on both a local setting and the business of selling books. And it is proof positive that simply writing what one knows isn’t always enough.
Reichs’s latest entry, Grave Secrets, finds Tempe in Guatemala, assisting in the recovery and identification of villagers “disappeared” during that country’s bloody civil conflict. It is heartrending and exhausting work, and Tempe is irritated to be torn away from it at the request of the Guatemalan police. Her assistance, it seems, is needed in investigating the disappearance of four girls, one of whom happens to be the daughter of the Canadian ambassador. Teaming with the requisitely rugged and handsome local cop, Tempe soons finds herself embroiled in international intrigue that will take her from a remote Guatemalan village to the mean streets of Montreal.
Reichs’s prose tends to read like a refresher course in anatomy, and this is both her weakness and her strength. What she offers, after all, is a voyeuristic glimpse into a profession that, in its specifics, is so repulsive as to be irresistibly intriguing. Indeed, the novel’s high point is a detailed and utterly revolting account of retrieving a decomposing body from a septic tank. Not just any septic tank, mind, but the septic tank of a fleabag hotel in a developing country. “Moving,” she writes, “felt like slogging through exactly what it was, a stew of human feces and microbial dung.” The passage – indeed, the novel itself – is at its most effective when imitating the tone of a police procedural.
While professional expertise is Reichs’s salvation, for Richard King it is, perhaps, his downfall. That Sleep of Death relies as heavily on King’s intimate knowledge of the bookselling business as Grave Secrets does upon Reichs’s experience in forensic pathology. Alas, there is a reason for the fact that the former remains largely unheralded.
King’s protagonist, Sam Wiseman, is co-owner of Dickens & Company, a “fictional” bookstore located on “fictional” avenue du Collège. Wiseman is disturbingly gleeful to discover the corpse of one of his longtime customers, a professor at nearby McGill. Defying all logic, the bookseller insinuates himself into the ensuing murder investigation, his finely honed literary skills proving indispensable to investigating detective Gaston Lemieux. The ability to identify books based upon the slimmest of clues provided by customers, has, we are told, prepared Wiseman well for a life of crimefighting.
King’s rather flimsy plot, revolving around the sort of academic backbiting present on all university campuses, is padded out with even flimsier romances and the rather excruciating details of running a small business. We learn about the backbreaking labour of stacking shelves, taking inventory and placing orders. Respectable work, to be sure, but lacking the glamour of a Third World septic tank.
There is an undeniable pleasure in reading ficionalized accounts of one’s city of residence. In the absence of addional substance, however, references to familiar streets or favourite restaurants tend to assume the aura of some literary version of product placement. Reichs succeeds because she has written not merely what she knows, but what she knows that others do not. This is not to suggest that being a forensic expert is a prerequisite for penning a crime thriller. It can only help, however, to have a passing acquaintance with investigative procedure – a lesson that future contributors to Montreal’s fictional sleuthing scene would do well to heed. mRb