'Flash And Bones': A High-Speed Murder Mystery

Originally published on August 29, 2011 8:56 am

The grisly discovery of a dead body stuffed in a 35-gallon drum full of asphalt and dumped at a landfill next to North Carolina's Charlotte Motor Speedway kicks off Kathy Reichs' new novel, Flash and Bones.

Reichs, a forensic anthropologist, is the author of the books that inspired the Fox TV series Bones. Her latest sends her heroine, medical examiner Temperance Brennan, on a journey through the underbelly of Charlotte's NASCAR racing scene.

Reichs tells weekends on All Things Considered host Laura Sullian that she researched Flash and Bones by visiting the Charlotte speedway, but the cars and spectators weren't what caught her interest.

"Wait a minute, tell me about this dump," she says, "because I'm thinking that's a great place to hide a body."

Reichs still keeps her day job as a forensic anthropologist, dividing her time between North Carolina and Quebec. She says details of her work often make it into her novels, although she usually alters them slightly — as in the case of her latest victim.

"We have done bodies in barrels in cement," she says. "Never done asphalt, but I figured, you know, I could figure that out."

The chemical composition of the asphalt in Flash and Bones provides a critical clue to the murder, but Reichs cautions readers not to expect too much from forensic science.

"It's called the 'CSI effect,'" she says, referring to the television crime drama. "The idea that jurors have way, way too high an expectation of science, that you're going to find that one scrap of skin in an acre of corn or something and that's going to crack the case."

Real life differs from television in one other crucial way, Reichs says. On Bones, Brennan "has this wonderful storage room with all the floor-to-ceiling backlit glass. ... I have this set of wooden shelves with cardboard boxes in a small storage area, and that's where our unsolved cases are."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: We take a leap now from the real to the fictional, but we're still staying at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

KATHY REICHS: (Reading) A maw of dusk was yielding to thunderheads mounding like enormous eggplants. The evening was electric with the feel of an impending storm. The speedway was another hatter's tea party of noise and turmoil. The sweaty, buggy air reeked of hot rubber, exhaust, sun-baked flesh and fried food. Amplified announcements barely carried over the ear-splitting whine of engine screaming around a mile and a half of asphalt.

SULLIVAN: That's author and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs reading from her latest Temperance Brennan mystery "Flash and Bones." You might be familiar with Temperance Brennan. Her adventures form the basis of the FOX TV series "Bones." Brennan's latest case kicks off with the grisly discovery, a body stuffed in a drum full of asphalt, tossed into a landfill by the racetrack just as the biggest racing event of the year is about to start.

And Kathy Reichs is with us now in our New York bureau to talk about her creation. Thanks so much for coming in.

REICHS: Well, thank you for inviting me.

SULLIVAN: So, you live in Charlotte, which is...

REICHS: I do.

SULLIVAN: ...a very big racing town - can't really get away from NASCAR in Charlotte. And normally, I would ask you something like, why set your book at a racetrack, but actually, what I want to ask you is why did it take you so long?

REICHS: Well, that's what my friends kept saying. I have some friends that are big fans and follow - or friends of the drivers and follow all the races. And every time I start a new book, they say, put it in, you know, put it in NASCAR. So they finally wore me down, and I'm glad. It was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: You say that you prefer to send Temperance to places that you're familiar with. But you weren't that familiar with NASCAR. What was that like?

REICHS: I wasn't. I'm familiar with Charlotte, obviously, but I had to do a lot of research. So I contacted all of these people I know. I contacted drivers and crew chiefs and owners and peppered them all with questions.

SULLIVAN: And you got a tour of the racetrack. You went and...

REICHS: I did. I got a tour of the racetrack from Marcus Smith, who runs the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And I think the whole he was trying to show me all the wonders of the track, I'm looking at this landfill next door, saying, wait a minute. Tell me about this dump because I'm thinking this is a great place to put a body.

SULLIVAN: A body.

REICHS: Yes.

SULLIVAN: And that's where the body ended up...

REICHS: Exactly.

SULLIVAN: ...(unintelligible) the book. What about "Bones" - the show "Bones," which is based on your books, and "CSI" - you know, do you feel like there's so much criminal science that goes on in these cases that - and that's how they're solved, you know, is by - does it give people a misleading idea of how a lot of these murders really are solved?

REICHS: Yeah. And not just murders. I mean, it's called the CSI effect. I just addressed the American Bar Association on this topic. The idea that jurors have way, way too high an expectation of science that you're going to find that one scrap of skin in an acre of corn or something and that's going to crack the case. And not only that, but I think there's also the CSI effects, if we want to call it that, impacts - I was just involved in the Casey Anthony case - and I think that also involves attorneys as well as expert witnesses in that expecting too much of science and pushing science way too far to the margins of where they should be presenting it in court.

SULLIVAN: What were you doing with the Casey Anthony case?

REICHS: Well, I was the official forensic anthropologist on the defense team. I was reluctant, initially, but I watched some of the media develop, and I was offended by how some of the media convicted this woman prior to her day in court. And that's not how our system is supposed to work. You're supposed to be convicted in court in front of a jury of your peers. So I did agree to - I did a full examination of the skeleton and visited the scene where the body was discovered.

SULLIVAN: When you're looking - as a forensic anthropologist, when you go examine bones of something, what are you looking for? What exactly do you do?

REICHS: When I'm brought into a case, usually at the request of the pathologist, and that's because the body's compromised - it's burned, mutilated, mummified, decomposed, dismembered or it's just bones. For some reason, they need the forensic anthropology consult. It can vary what they want. It could be a question of ID: who is it? If we have a completely unknown, I'll give them the age, the race, the sex, the height, any physical characteristics I can so that the investigating officer can then match that profile against missing person's reports. Then we have a name. Then you can go out and get DNA or dental records or whatever. But you can't use those in a vacuum.

SULLIVAN: Did you get a lot of the details from this book and from most of your books from your actual work as an anthropologist?

REICHS: Yes. I take ideas for my stories from either cases I've done or cases I've witnessed coming through our lab or our autopsy room or maybe talking to colleagues attending professional meetings.

SULLIVAN: Did any of the storylines in "Flash and Bones" come from real cases?

REICHS: Well, we have done bodies in barrels in cement. Never done asphalt, but I figured, you know, I could figure that out, so...

SULLIVAN: And there was a lot in the book about how the body would decompose or not decompose because of that asphalt. And the hand was sticking up out of the asphalt, so you could tell it was a body. Did you have to do a lot of research to figure that out?

REICHS: Well, actually, I saw cases of bodies in cement, and asphalt works pretty much the same. It's pretty good sealant. It keeps you in there.

SULLIVAN: It's just like the character in this book.

REICHS: Exactly.

SULLIVAN: It was pretty much in the same solid state that he started in.

REICHS: He or she.

SULLIVAN: He or she.

REICHS: No spoilers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: That's right. That's right. Author and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. Her latest book is "Flash and Bones." Thank you so much for coming in today.

REICHS: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.