Scribner, New York
July 2005 (hc)
Kathy Reichs and her intrepid heroine, Temperance Brennan-part time faculty in anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and part-time forensic anthropologist for the Montreal police department-are back with a vengeance. This is the eighth Tempe Brennan novel, and while I’ve enjoyed each of them very much, I have had misgivings concerning the last two entries – Monday Mourning and Bare Bone. While the forensic science depicted and described continued to be fascinating and to be integral to the plots, the plots themselves seemed weak and drifting-very much a departure from the early books, which were fast-paced, tightly plotted mystery thrillers that could literally leave a reader’s heart pounding with excitement.
But Kathy Reichs has gotten back in the groove with Cross Bones, and does it while working through a very demanding plot. It’s one that revolves around a question posited by a number of the archaeology mystery/thrillers reviewed here in the past few years: What if Christ did not die on the cross? She addresses this plot line without being derivative and within the confines of a book series that features a cast of recurring characters.
The mystery unfolds within the context of everyday life in Tempe’s world. A Montreal import merchant who happens to be an Orthodox Jew is found dead of gunshot wounds under fairly suspicious circumstances. While suicide is a possibility, crime scene investigators establish that murder is a more likely cause of death. At the forensic investigation conducted by Tempe, a mysterious figure gives her a photo of skeletal remains purportedly taken in Israel in 1963, tells her that the photo’s subject is the reason for the murder, and then promptly disappears. Tempe seeks out the aid of a UNC-C colleague, archaeologist Jake Drum, in identifying the remains. Drum tells her that he believes the photo is of an unreported skeleton from the 1960s excavations at Masada, conducted by famed Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin. Following a convoluted trail of clues, Tempe is able trace the peripatetic skeleton, which was secreted out of Israel to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, from which it was stolen and smuggled into Canada with the help of the dead import merchant and finally ending up in a monastery outside Montreal-with some of the individuals involved convinced that the remains are those of Jesus, who not only survived the crucifixion, but died at the age of 80 at the Roman siege of Masada! Tempe leaves the monastery with the “sacred” remains, intending to repatriate them to Israel, as international law would require. The plot indeed does thicken as Father Morissoneau, the monk who had been hiding the skeleton, is found dead shortly after his meeting with Tempe and she realizes that Avram Ferris, the import merchant had the bones and he was dead; then Father Morissoneau had the bones and he was dead; she now has them in her position and she’s pretty good at connecting the dots.
Tempe and her policeman/sometime lover Andrew Ryan fly off to Jerusalem to return the bones in person and to continue the hunt for the merchant’s killer, whose trail has also led to Israel. While attempting to puzzle out the mystery of the Masada skeleton, Tempe manages to excite the passions of the Ultra-Orthodox Hevrat Kadisha, who abhor the exhumation of Jewish remains and believes she may also be targeted by either Christian fundamentalists or Islamist terrorists-all of whom might have a great interest in scientific proof that might refute Christian theology. She also manages to discover a second burial, this of a crucified 1st Century Jew, in a tomb which may have been the final resting place of the so-called “Jesus family,” including Mary, the mother of Jesus and his siblings! This find prompts Tempe to ask of Ryan a truly rhetorically understated question: “What’s the probability that two skeletons with claims to being Jesus Christ show up at the same, exact point in time?”
To find the answers to these cosmic questions and the answer to a fairly complex crime, you’ll have to read Cross Bones. And along the way you will read one of the clearest and most concise descriptions (for the layperson) of the science of mitochondrial DNA, nuclear DNA, and how they are used by DNA mappers, the medical profession and forensic investigators.
Three and half trowels for the welcomed return of Kathy Reichs and Temperance Brennan.