Genre: Crime Thriller
Publishing Info: Arrow Books (1998)
Bagged and discarded, the dismembered body of a woman is discovered in the grounds of an abandoned monastery.
Dr Temperance Brennan, Director of Forensic Anthropology for the province of Quebec, has been researching recent disappearances in the city.
Soon she is convinced that a serial killer is at work. When no one else seems to care, her anger drives her to take matters into her own hands. But her determined probing has placed those closest to her in mutual danger.
Can Tempe make her crucial breakthrough before the killer strikes again?
The first book in Kathy Reich’s critically acclaimed series featuring Temperance “Tempe” Brennan is, in spite of its length, a well-written crime thriller that, through the lens of the heroine, loosely based on the author’s own experiences in forensic anthropology, puts female characters front and centre. It is easy to see, from the strengths of this first novel, how the series has spanned over twenty books and into television.
Reich’s writing style provides a great narrative voice for the character of Tempe. The clinical terminology and expertise from Reich’s profession as a professor of forensic anthropology clash against general concerns including the welfare of her daughter. This almost unrelenting stream of consciousness allows the readers to get a greater insight into the vulnerabilities of the character, which makes her more empathetic. Her characterisation and personality are also written well – she is not a cliched detective, nor a completely emotionless doctor. Her weaknesses of emotion, including her rage at her loved ones getting dragged into danger, and her recklessness to get answers that comes at the cost of her self-preservation provide the audience an opportunity to completely understand the character. Throughout the book, readers will feel like they are sitting inside her mind, Tempe being the vessel that pulls us through this case, her theories and thoughts being what drives us through the narrative. With this book being the first in the ‘Temperance Brennan’ series, I am appreciative of the central character being written so well.
This book is on the longer side, at over 500 pages in length, which will sound daunting to casual readers. However, at no point does it feel like scenes are being added for the sake of it – every chapter provides new information and revelations on the killer’s motives and potential identity, so readers will feel like they are themselves getting closer to catching the killer. As the narrative develops, so does Tempe’s paranoia and belief that she is personally being stalked by the same person who is murdering women in Quebec. This provides the plot with a secondary layer of tension required to sustain the reader’s focus for this length of book. To describe this book as a ‘real page-turner’ may even be underselling its intrigue; Tempe’s increasing fears, coupled with the violent and obscene nature of the murders, will make you want to discover the murderer’s identity, which, in my eyes, makes this a successful thriller. There are also, without spoiling the plot, a number of red herrings, times where the characters go back and forth between potential scenes of the crimes and properties of suspects and people who may have knowledge, and multiple chapters that end on a cliffhanger, leaving you constantly changing your prediction on who the killer may be, which again highlights how this is a terrific and effective crime thriller.
I do not believe that it was an accident that the first book Reichs releases in her ‘Temperance Brennan’ series focuses on the seemingly unrelated serial murders of women in Quebec. Reichs is a professor of forensic anthropology and has testified in criminal trials – the first-hand knowledge of being a woman in a largely male-dominated field definitely impacts on the way that females and males are generally portrayed in this novel. The majority of male characters come off as unsavoury or unfriendly to Tempe initially, however the character later realises that there is kindness within several of them. This judgement of males as ‘the other’ could well be seen as a response to Reichs’ own experiences in forensic anthropology as a woman, and how she potentially was treated as ‘the other’ by male colleagues. The women within this book are generally portrayed as suffering in one way or another: Tempe has recently split from her husband and has a strained relationship with the daughter they share, her friend Gabby suffers from poor mental health, several supporting characters who engage in prostitution share their more negative experiences with Tempe, and the murdered women seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I applaud Reichs for not toning down this theme of female suffering in her debut novel – I can imagine that upon the time of writing, the majority of protagonists in crime novels and their writers were male, which makes it all the more important for female experiences in crime novels to be put front and center.
Déjà Dead is the first novel in Kathy Reichs’ ‘Temperance Brennan’ series, and won several awards upon its release, including Best Seller in the New York Times. In spite of its length, the electric pacing and narrative that will leave you changing your predictions multiple times, along with the female characters being provided with an effective voice in a crime thriller, means that this is one crime thriller that you will not be able to put down.
Star Rating: 4.5/5
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