I live two blocks from a library. The year is hurtling towards its end. Work is frantic, my son has been teething, we’re broke and the house is in a continual state of chaos. Working on my novel has been feeling a bit like trying to dig through a hundred feet of concrete with a plastic spoon.
Books are one of my favourite escapes. If I’m wanting a binge, I’ll generally either go for fantasy or detective fiction. This past week, courtesy of the Belconnen Public Library, it’s been detective fiction. Forensic crime to be more accurate. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series to be exact. About four of them in a week. I think that classifies as binge?
I’ve never read anything by Reichs before. I’ve also never watched the TV series Bones, which is based on her books (which is a serious omission on my part if only for the fact that it has David Boreanaz in it).
Reichs herself is a forensic anthropologist and it comes through in her writing. Not just that she knows what all those bones are called, but she is familiar with every tiny step that takes place in what is a very process-oriented profession. She knows her way around the layout of a forensic lab. She knows how it smells, how it feels to insert the scalpel and make the oft-described Y-incision. She uses that knowledge to bring her stories to life without banging you over the head with it.
Reading these books as a writer, there are number of things I found that Reichs does consummately that I would love to bring more of to my own writing.
Her writing is all about details. In forensics, the tiniest detail might be what leads you to answers, or to further questions. The details in Reichs’ writing also make her settings and her characters real. And she is unsparing. People and places are observed with all their characteristic quirks and ugliness.
None of her books are straight lines. There are plots and subplots, personality clashes, twists and big surprises. Tempe, the main character, is an independent, mature woman. She is a recovering alcoholic, has a grown up daughter, a mentally-unstable ageing mother, multiple ex’s, and a solid professional reputation, which all provides Reichs with lots of material to work with in terms of ongoing story content and character development. There are always past lovers and potential lovers in the wings in each book, but in all the books I’ve read, Tempe doesn’t actually hook up with anybody, generally preferring to follow a lead or head home to her cat, Birdie.
By the end of each story, the stakes for Tempe are always life and death.
Which brings me to the one thing irked me. In each of the books I read, Tempe risked her life to follow her gut and solve the crime. While her knowledge, instinct and skill were what brought a satisfactory conclusion to the investigation, she always ended up getting rescued by some bloke. Sure she works with cops and she’s not a cop. On her own she doesn’t have the backup or the fire-power to defend herself against the baddies, who are generally pretty darn bad. But still, every time? That’s my one big gripe about the series.
That aside, the thing I love about books like these, and the reason detective fiction makes some of the best binge reading, is that there is always promise and fulfilment. At the outset: a gruesome or haunting death, a mystery, a high-stakes mission to find answers. At the end: explanation and comprehension.
It’s not the promise of justice, but the promise of knowledge that makes me keep reading. These stories feeds some visceral need in me to feel that the world is a place that can be understood.
So, what have you been reading this week?