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Monday Mourning

by Kathy Reichs

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Monday Mourning by Kathy Reichs
Scribner, 2004

Monday Mourning is Kathy Reichs' seventh Temperance Brennan novel. It is as chillingly good as her first, Deja Dead, a NY Times bestseller which won the 1997 Edgar Award for best first novel. One of the book blurbs for Monday says she is as "good as Cornwell at her best." Wrong. Reichs is consistently better.

Her alter ego and protagonist, Temperance Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of North Carolina and for the Laboratoire de Science Judiciaires et Médicine Légale for the province of Quebéc. She is also a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. So is Dr. Reichs. Do not be mislead by her academic pedigree; she is equally adept as a writer.

Monday Mourning acknowledges its debt to the song "Monday, Monday" by the Mamas and the Papas. It's a cold December Monday in Montreal and nothing is going right. Temperance is digging bones in the dirt cellar underneath a bathroom in a pizza parlor, formerly owned by a mob boss. Three sets of bones lead her on a mission to determine their age and who may have killed them - if a crime was even committed. Of course, there was a crime. Of course, she solves it. That's standard crime fiction, but it is the journey to the conclusions which is riveting.

Will the hard-boiled detective believe her, especially when he believes a woman's place is not in police work? Will she find love with another detective? What will happen to her sister who suddenly disappears? How will Temperance's disposition to being "irresponsible sometimes, passionate about her work, and frustrated that people won't listen," according to Reichs, affect her pursuit of the answers?

Reichs looks at the results of violence from different perspectives in each of her books. All are based on real cases placed in a different milieu. Two years ago the owner of a Montreal pizza parlor called in a plumber. The plumber opened a trap door beside a commode, revealing stairs to the dirt floor underneath. They went down and found what turned out to be a very old bone. They actually took the bone to the library and looked it up in anatomy texts to identify it as a human thigh bone before calling the police. The key question in the novel, and the scientific quest, is how to determine the age and identity of the bones.

Monday hinges on carbon 14 isotope analysis. We are familiar with dating fossils based on the half-life of carbon 14. The process does not work for more recent deaths, except for people born from 1955 - 63, a period when there was atmospheric testing of atom bombs. The testing affected the pMC values (Trust me, this works in context.) in the bones.

Deja Dead was driven by saw-mark analysis in which victims had been dismembered with great skill, perhaps that of a butcher or an orthopedic surgeon. Deadly Decisions revolves around blood spatter patterns, and the killings resulting from a major war between two biker gangs. In a recent reading on her current book tour, Reichs told the story of asking a colleague to explain how it worked. He took her into a room lined with white paper and proceeded to sling bull's blood onto all the walls. She learned more than she wanted to know.

She also said that at a book signing some time ago, a local coroner brought a Tupperware container filled with bones!

In Fatal Voyage a commercial airplane crashes. After everyone is accounted for, one left foot is left over. The science examines the process of decomposition and the "soup" formed by the breakdown of fatty acids.

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