By Kathy Reichs
Conan picked this up when he was used book hunting in Berkeley last Christmas, but soon had to put it down half way simply because the writing was so bad and he just couldn’t get into the serial killer thing. Although I don’t disagree with his first assessment, there are other things going for me: I can enjoy a good serial killer thriller if it’s decently crafted, I have a soft spot for forensic/crime scene investigation stories and I’ve always wanted to read something by Kathy Reichs, who, in case you didn’t know, is an American forensic anthropologist who divides her time between working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina and for the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale in Quebec. She is probably better known for her series of crime novels featuring her alter ego, Dr Temperance Brennan, which also inspired the TV series, Bones.
Deja Dead is the first book in the series with Dr. Brennan stationed in Montreal at the medico-legal lab, which is located in what is known as the QPP or SQ building, depending on your linguistic preference. To Anglophones, it is the Quebec Provincial Police—to francophones, La Sureté du Québec. The Laboratoire de Médecine Légale, similar to a medical examiner’s office in the States, shares the fifth floor with the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires, the central crime lab for the province.
I suppose if I were Conan, reading about an intrepid female forensic anthropologist who tries to convince her mostly male colleagues of detectives that they have a serial murderer on their hands, may come across as a bit clichéd and tiresome, but I got quite into it. As soon as Dr. Brennan was called in to investigate a body found on the grounds of Le Grand Seminaire in Westmount, where Olman and I actually stomped around in, I was already hooked.
Alas, the quality of writing can be pretty bad, ie. awkward dialogue, cringe-inducing details about her love life, the internal reflections that are more hackneyed than insightful, ie. the deaths of these women had stirred something in me. I ached for their fear, their pain. I felt anger and outrage, and a need to root out the animal responsible for the slaughter. The depiction of the underlying sexism in a male-dominated profession can be a little simplistic at times, like Brennan’s conflicts with Luc Claudel, the SQ investigator, or city detective. Furthermore, the attempts at humour or irony are rather pedestrian, where Reichs comes across more square than, say, hard boiled. I’m also disappointed that she neglects to exploit the humour of the CUM squad car (the French acronym for the Montreal Urban Community).
But when Reichs delivers the straight goods of the investigation itself, ie. pretty much writing what she knows best, the extraneous stuff gets pared down and the story can get pretty gripping. I also like it when she explains the police procedural stuff since I actually don’t know too much how it works in Quebec, and what she says still probably has some truth to it, like:
The Communauté Urbaine de Montréal police handle murders occurring on the island itself. Off the island, they fall to local police departments, or to La Sureté du Québec. Coordination is not always good.
Ultimately, for me, the main draw of Deja Dead is that it’s set in Montreal in the early 1990’s. You can tell that Reichs adores the city and she tries to squeeze in brief histories of the various places as much as possible, especially the Boulevard St-Laurent, aka the Main. Some of the landmarks she mentions are still standing, others long gone: fresh fish at Waldman’s, smoked meat at Schwartz’s, apples and strawberries at Warshaw’s, baked goods at La Boulangerie Polonaise. In a kind of morbid homage, Reichs sets the various murder scenes all over Montreal and the surrounding island, from the grounds of Le Grand Seminaire in Westmount to The Gay Village, as well Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Ile-St-Helene. I was also able to pinpoint the specific time period of the novel when Reichs describes the heroine looking at a poster for the Tamara de Lempicka exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts. I had seen that awesome show when I was in Montreal as a French bursary student in the summer of ’91!