Saturday, 14 March 2009

Book review: "Break no bones", by Kathy Reichs

I picked this book up from the library, keen to read another crime thriller (there are none on on my to-be-read shelf at the moment). I had heard many god things about Kathy Reichs; the character in this book, Temperance 'Tempe' Brennan, is the inspiration for the main character in the well-regarded TV series 'Bones'. Kathy Reichs is also a producer on the show.

The book starts off with Tempe at an archaeological field school on a sandy island off the coast of South Carolina. Her students find many ancient, pre-Columban bodies, then, on the penultimate day of the dig, they find a much more recent corpse in a shallow grave. The discovery leads Tempe into a dark investigation involving other bodies and missing people.

There is a sparsity to he language, as if words have been missed out. This lends itself well to a fast-paced plot, but got wearying to read after a while. Tempe is a forensic anthropologist, and the book reads as though a forensic dissection has taken place on the sentences. Commas are also used sparsely, and most sentences are under ten words long. There was little let-up in the short, staccato sentences.

Having said that, the book does contain some very good, if sparse, descriptions and text - for example, 'In my view, death in anonymity is the ultimate insult to human dignity'.

The plot is fast-moving. Each chapter is only about eight pages long, and this forces the reader on. However it also means that some of the chapters end and start in places that do not necessarily appear to be natural places for a break.

There are perhaps too many medical terms, although the important ones are explained to the reader in a clear, understandable manner. Given the author's background, the usage of the terms is forgivable. She does not let her undoubted expertise overwhelm the book, and the snippets she does give enhance the impression that Tempe knows her stuff (even if the reader is left unclear).

Unfortunately, the plot has major flaws. In a week, three separate murder victims are found, all with the same damage to the bones in the lower neck. All have been dead for some months or years. All three bodies turn up within a week for random reasons; one is dug up by Tempe, another is found washed up in a barrel, and a third had been hanging from a tree for months. It seems massively coincidental that these bodies are found by chance in the same week that the investigation is ongoing, and no attempt is made to explain this coincidence. This really spoilt the plot for me. My suspension of disbelief had to go into overdrive.

One of the rules for detective fiction should be: "do not leave anything to chance". Everything to do with the murder plot should be adequately explained. The way the bodies turn up at the right point in the plot to move the story on could almost make them classic MacGuffins.

The cast of characters is also rather large; Tempe herself, the lover, the ex-husband, the victims, the policeman, the best friend, the cat, the dog, the kitchen sink... There are too many people in the book, many of whom are peripheral. Some should have been cut out to make the book tauter.

The ending is also unsatisfactory. An attempt is made to do a double-twist at the end, but it really doesn't seem to work. The villain is a one-dimensional bad guy, and the final attempt at adding a thrill by having a final attack by the villain (boo, hiss!) was hackneyed and did not work. Much is made at the beginning of the book is made about a search for a young woman, Helen Flynne, who had been reported missing. Throughout the book I felt as though she had some special significance, but no; she ends up having been just another victim. Her character needs to either have been more involved or cut out completely (again, see above; there are too many characters).

There's also eight or so pages at the end of the book, just before the epilogue, where the loose stands of the plot are pulled together. This is too much, and indicates that the plot was not adequately explained before the denouement. The sections of books after the denouement should be used to bring the reader down to a gentler pace, and tie up the loose ends in the protagonist's life. It should not be used to explain aspects of the plot that the reader should have known before the denouement. What is worse, this could easily have been done in this book; all it needed was a little reorganisation.

Having said all of this, the book was undoubtedly gripping. It is hardly high literature, but it does keep you reading. I read the book in a day and a half, and mostly enjoyed it; I would definitely read another one of her books. However, I still only give it 2.5 out of 5. The short, disjointed sentences and the plot holes spoilt the book for me.

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