On the Case

Kathy Reichs, the forensic expert who helped inspire the TV show “Bones,” talks about homicides, DNA and her latest novel

"As a kid I pictured myself as a scientist," says Reichs. "I never anticipated writing fiction." Marie-Reine Mattera

When she's not working for North Carolina's chief medical examiner in Charlotte, and for Quebec's central crime lab in Montreal, she writes bestselling crime novels featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. The character inspired the television show "Bones," about a female forensic specialist at the "Jeffersonian," a fictional Washington, D.C. museum not unlike the Smithsonian. Reichs' tenth novel, Bones to Ashes, appears this month. A Chicago native with a doctorate in anthropology, Reichs is married to Paul Reichs, a lawyer, with whom she has three grown children.

What attracted you to the field of forensic anthropology?

I was doing archaeology, and the police started bringing me cases. If there was a local bones specialist at a university, often law enforcement would take skeletal remains there. As I started doing it, I liked that it was very relevant.

How closely do you work with criminal investigators?

Not everything that comes in is a homicide. It could be an old person who wandered off, died in the woods and the body is found years later. If it's a homicide, we work with the investigators at the outset. I might tell them, "You're looking for a middle-aged black male." They'll go off and get missing persons lists, and they might bring back some possible names and profiles. They'll try to get medical records, dental records. If it's a homicide, then we might also talk about trauma. If someone is prosecuted, then I'll testify.

You work on crime victims. Do you think about them a lot?

You have to remain objective, of course. My colleague Clyde Snow has said, "If you have to cry, you cry at night at home. While you're doing your job, you do your job." The cases that stay in your mind are the ones that haven't been resolved.

You testified in Tanzania at the United Nations Tribunal on Genocide in Rwanda.

What I did there was similar to what I had done for the military lab for many years, which was to review positive IDs of [dead] soldiers. I was at the tribunal under witness protection; they told me they had lost some witnesses.

Do you worry about your safety?

There was one trial in the States in which the defendant said he was going to kill me. They couldn't bring extra cops into the courtroom because that would be prejudicial, but they put them at the doors. They said, "If he comes at you, just get down." I thought, if he comes at me, I'm diving behind the judge. (The defendant was convicted.)

When did you start writing fiction?

In the mid-1990s, when I had a serial murder case. It was before this massive interest in forensics. The time seemed right to combine murder mystery and forensics with a strong female character. I took the approach to write about what I know. I base my books only loosely on real cases. The one that triggered Bones to Ashes was a child skeleton found on the Quebec-New Brunswick border—a child about 5 or 6 years old who has never been identified.

What impact have forensic novels and TV shows had on the public?

They've made the public a bit more aware of science. Especially kids. Especially little girls, which is a good thing. But they've raised the public's expectations higher than is realistic, with juries expecting every single case to get DNA every time. That's not realistic. It's not even smart. You don't do every single test in every single case.

What do your science colleagues think of your fiction?

You're not supposed to be writing fiction. If you do it in the English department, you're a hero. If you do it in the science department, you're a little suspect.

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