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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass

April 1, 2007

HarperCollins Publishers: New York
2007 (pb)

Carved in Bone is a novel obviously aimed at that audience that seems insatiable in its desire to absorb as much forensic crime fiction as possible. Devotees of authors such as Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs and TV shows like “CSI” and “Bones” will be delighted with the entry of “Jefferson Bass” in the mix. But like Kathy Reichs, who is real life forensic anthropologist, and who plugs Carved in Bone as “the real deal,” Jefferson Bass (or at least half of him) is the real deal! For Jefferson Bass is the pseudonym of two collaborators—journalist Jon Jefferson and forensic anthropologist, Dr. William Bass. Dr. Bass is not only a highly regarded member of his profession, with over two hundred scientific publications to his credit, but also the founder of the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility—better known as, and made famous in fiction in Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novel—the Body Farm.

This unique facility, founded some twenty-five years ago, utilizes the donation of human cadavers to study the effects of the environment—both natural and man-made on the decomposition of human bodies. The information gleaned from this admittedly macabre experiment in taphonomy provides invaluable information to law enforcement investigations.

Enter Dr. Bill Brockton, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee and a researcher at the Body Farm, who lends his expertise to local and federal criminal investigators—and a younger version, the reader assumes, of Dr. Bass himself. This first entry in the “Body Farm Novels”—a second, entitled Flesh and Bone, was published earlier this year—is an exciting addition to the world of forensic fiction. Bill Brockton is a pleasant protagonist—brilliant but a bit goofy in an endearing academic way—but also more than a little vulnerable and somewhat damaged following the death of his wife, some two years before Carved in Bone opens.

In addition to the creation of Brockton, the collaborating authors accurately describe the University of Tennessee campus and Knoxville environment, including the Anthropology Department’s sharing of the UT football stadium with the famed UT Volunteers football team! Jefferson and Bass also create a rural East Tennessee (especially their Cooke County) full of crooked lawmen, moonshiners, pot growers, Primitive Baptists (that’s not a religious slur but rather the official name of a denomination!), cock fight fans, and a whole lot of people who don’t like “outsiders!”

Bill Brockton’s first “recorded” case involves the discovery of the body of a young woman in a cave in backcountry Cooke County. The body has been mummified in its own adipocere, or “grave wax,” which forms when the body’s fatty tissues decompose in moist environments, which in turn gives the cadaver the look of a wax figure. It is in such forensic detail that the novel almost literally takes flight—for Jefferson Bass is the “real deal.” This book—and I suspect, those to come—is not be for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But despite the high “yuck factor,” this is an entertaining and a very educational outing into the world of forensic anthropology.

I anticipate stronger plots in the future—the denouement was a bit too easy to predict—but the forensic science alone earns this little gem four trowels!