Déjà Dead by Kathy Reichs
The most appropriate word to use when describing anthropologist Kathy Reichs’ Déjà Dead is “gripping.” And it’s true. I could not put it down. Unfortunately, I mean this in the “I’m so terrified I can’t go to sleep and oh dear god I just want this to be over NOW” sense of the word.
For those of you familiar with the television show “Bones,” you know both Reichs and the character Temperance Brennan well. Reichs is herself a forensic anthropologist and popular novelist whose books focus on another forensic anthropologist (Brennan) who solves murders based on the physical evidence found in the victim’s bones. It should be duly noted—since I think many of the books’ new readers come via the show—that the television show and the books bear little resemblance aside from the main character having the same name. Book-Brennan and TV-Brennan are two entirely different women. (Apparently TV-Brennan is based on Reichs personally rather than on Book-Brennan and just stole the name.) Similarly, even though they share a premise, the books and the TV show have two entirely different tones to fit their different protagonists.
Déjà Dead is the first of Reichs’ novels and, as I said, it is undeniably gripping. It is also gruesome and creepy. For some reason seeing half-decomposed skeletal remains and reading a description of them are two very different things and I can now tell you the latter is by far the more unpleasant. Reichs’ anthropologically-correct descriptions of the mutilations suffered by the victims in Déjà Dead (amplified by Brennan’s empathy towards the victims) are terrifying. Her further descriptions of the hunt for the man responsible (which gets increasingly personal to our heroine) are horror film worthy. This book is perhaps literally a mystery, but it would more accurately be placed in the horror genre.
I must say that, prior to Déjà Dead, I never truly realized how scary someone doing something alone is. Even the scenes in Brennan’s apartment (eating dinner, watching TV, feeding her cat) were tense and I could barely relax after the scene was over and she was back in the lab the next morning. Every trip to the gym alone caused my muscles to tighten and every time she couldn’t reach someone on the phone made me stop breathing. Perhaps I’m easily frightened and should stick to Victorian mysteries, but this book had me petrified. I literally could not move.
So does this mean it was a good, scary book? I guess I would grudgingly say yes. I was definitely scared, so that speaks to the book’s abilities in that regard. However, I did not find Reichs’ prose to be remotely enjoyable; her style is mostly to use short fragmented sentences that serve as Brennan’s stream-of-consciousness musings on case files, men’s butts, and worry about various people close to her. (Book-Brennan is also impossibly prickly. Whenever she does something recklessly stupid—which is surprisingly often for someone so supposedly intelligent—and gets berated, she first gets sulky, then blames the patriarchy, and then suddenly explodes yelling at whoever is trying to help her. At least TV-Brennan can be relied upon to remain rational in these situations.)
Style-wise, I also detested Reichs’ affection for ending chapters with something dramatic like “And then I knew. I knew where he was. I grabbed my keys.” and then opening the next chapter with something like “Normally, I wouldn’t eat Cajun food twice in one week, but I was damn hungry.” She eventually gets around to telling you what happened in between the keys and the Cajun food but while there is something to be said for suspense, I’ll take mine in a more natural format rather than these forced cliff-hangers.
Unsurprisingly, Reichs’ best quality as an author is making forensic findings digestible and making it all make sense to the layman (me). Those parts were well-done and interesting, even if what Book-Brennan was able to figure out from skeletal remains pales beside the crazy things TV-Brennan is able to suss out. (Book-Brennan has the bonus of being undoubtedly more realistic in this way. The ludicrousness of what TV-Brennan can deduce often has me rolling my eyes.)
On the whole, I would probably not recommend Déjà Dead unless you have an affection for horror films and like your books in a similar tone. As a fan of the television “Bones,” I’m vaguely glad I can now compare the two, but I did not enjoy reading this book nor will I be continuing on to read more of Reichs’ stories. Instead, I’m going to focus my anthropological energies on “Bones” and continue enjoying the characters and dialogue to be found there. Who would have thought the film version of these crimes would be less disturbing than the written one? I guess props to Reichs for her ability to horrify, but that isn’t enough to make me suggest this book to anyone.