Kathy Reichs’s latest offering

2010-10-06 00:00

THE confusion begins with the first two words in the “Acknowledgments” which, unusually these days, precede the first chapter: the book’s title is given as Spider Bones, which, one has to deduce, must have been the original in the United States, and more interesting than the hackneyed Mortal Remains. Apparently no one bothered to edit the Acknowledgments — and as I read on I wondered what had become of the tough-minded editors who helped knock Reichs­’s earlier books into shape, for this one’s shape is amorphous at best.

The original title refers to the nickname, “Spider” of the first victim, drowned in Quebec apparently while engaged in a form of auto-eroticism. In fact the bizarre and grisly mode of death — presumably based on one of Reichs’s own forensic investigations — is pretty much gratuitous. What matters is that the fingerprints of the corpse identify him as John Lowery, declared dead in 1968, having gone down in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. How could he have died twice, and how did an American soldier end up in Canada?

Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan sets off for the answer, exhuming Lowery’s grave in North Carolina and taking the remains to the Hawaii headquarters of JPAC, the U.S. military’s Joint Prisoner-of-War/Missing-in-Action Accounting Command, which strives to recover the remains of Americans who have died in past conflicts. With her colleague and ex-lover Detective Andrew Ryan in tow, (as well as her daughter Katy, needing a holiday after the loss of a boyfriend), she locates yet more remains with Lowery’s dog-tags entangled among them. Three bodies, therefore, and all identified as Lowery.

Could be good, intriguing, gripping, clever. Instead it just seems ravelled, woolly, and too complicated for its own good. Some colourful Hawaii-based characters appear to promise a lightening of the atmosphere and greater interest, but somehow that doesn’t happen — perhaps because there is something inherently repellent in the water-logged, shark-munched portions of human being they ask Tempe to investigate.

Reichs is coasting. She needs to sharpen up.


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