Kathy Reichs’ thrillers (30 million and counting) have been turned into flesh and blood with the TV hit Bones, but it’s her day-job cases as a forensic anthropologist – from the butcher serial killer to the murderous in-laws – that will leave you chilled to the bone!
She prides herself on being a ‘voice from beyond the grave’ for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, known to all as ‘the bones lady’, is one of the world’s leading experts in finding out how, where and when someone died – often handling those who have endured the most gruesome and grisly ends imaginable.
‘No one starts off the day thinking they will end up on my table,’ she says with a half-smile. ‘I handle a lot of murder cases and deaths that need forensic explanation.
‘Someone has to tell their story. And that’s where I come in.’
Reichs helped the Catholic Church verify the remains of a 300-year-old saint, identified the remains of soldiers lost in battle and has helped solve countless murders, including the case of a couple who chopped up their daughter-in-law because they didn’t want her taking their grandson to another state.
And if that wasn’t enough, along the way she has sold 30 million copies of her books about feisty fictional forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (‘Loosely based on me but I don’t have the alcohol problem,’ she jokes), a series of 18 best-selling crime novels that spawned the hit TV show Bones, which has just ended after 12 seasons.
At 68, the slim blonde could pass for a woman a decade younger as she sits in the airy living room of the sprawling £3 million lakeside home she shares in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her lawyer husband Paul and their menagerie of three rescue cats and a dog. A brief description of her house is all that can be given for security reasons. ‘I’ve testified against some less-than-savoury characters in my career,’ she says nonchalantly.
A mother of three grown children and grandmother to six, Reichs is a professor of anthropology at nearby University of North Carolina but spends most of her days working from her home office, which is decorated with framed first-edition covers of her books and a rather quirky four-foot-tall plaster giraffe called Roxanna.
Reichs was born in Chicago to a father who was a manager in a meat-packing company and a mother who played the trumpet in the city’s symphony orchestra.
A curious child, she was never interested in dolls, preferring to dig up insects and look at them under a microscope. ‘I was always interested in animals and archaeology and mysteries like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. That’s the appeal of forensic anthropology, it brings science and mystery together.’
After earning an anthropology degree she began working at the university in Charlotte. ‘I was working with ancient bones and that is when the police started bringing me cases and I got hooked. Back then there was no formal forensic anthropology department. If the police had a case that stumped them it was, “Let’s take it to the bones lady”.’
Reichs’ first case, of a missing five-year-old called Neely Smith, still haunts her. ‘She went missing during a thunderstorm. I had a five-year-old of my own at the time and I remember thinking: “Was she lost and scared out in the storm?”
‘They found her bones three months later. You cannot fail to be moved when you hold a child’s skull in your hands. No one was ever convicted in that case, but being able to identify her bones and get her reunited with her family profoundly affected me. I love archaeology but you are never going to impact on anyone’s life. Working forensic cases helps real people.
‘There was one fellow whose sister was murdered by her boyfriend, and her body was dumped under a pile of rocks. After I helped ID the body and testified in court against the killer, the brother brought me an entire scrapbook of her life. That’s when it hit home that I could make a real difference.’
In 1997, at a time when crime books were starting to fuel the public’s imagination, Reichs wrote her first Bones book, Déjà Dead. ‘A colleague of mine had written a novel. I had three kids to get through college and all these great real-life stories. The public’s appetite for crime had been fuelled by cases like the OJ Simpson murder trial. Suddenly, everyone was talking about DNA and grisly crime scenes.’
The book became a global bestseller and the fastest-selling debut novel ever in the UK. She is currently working on the 19th Temperance Brennan book and is about to embark on a UK tour to celebrate the publication of her first non-forensic novel, crime mystery Two Nights, about a private investigator called Sunday Night who unearths a terrorist plot.
Reichs admits packing her books full of crowd-pleasing gruesome autopsies and stomach-churning detail but adds, ‘I never put anything in there to be gratuitously shocking.’ Her real-life work has provided endless inspiration. When her books were turned into the hit TV show Bones, starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz, in 2005, Reichs also became a producer on the series.
In 1997 she was brought in by the United Nations to testify in the 1994 genocide in the central African nation of Rwanda. ‘I was in the witness-protection programme but was being guarded by 14-year-olds with guns,’ she recalls, rolling her eyes. ‘It’s important to get concrete evidence on record to prove something like that took place.’
Reichs works with the Pentagon, dealing with the bodies of missing US servicemen, some of which date from World War 2, Vietnam and the Korean War. ‘Now Korea is opening up we are getting more bones back. Some of them have been stored in warehouses in Korea for decades. It is immensely gratifying to reunite soldiers with their loved ones. The soldiers may have been missing for decades but families never give up. They want to give them a proper burial.’
She worked on the case of a Canadian serial killer, Serge Archambault, who is believed to have murdered six women and was convicted in 1993 for the murder of three. ‘The pattern of dismemberment was unique. I suggested in court the killer had perhaps been a butcher or surgeon. It turns out this guy was a butcher.
‘Bones “speak” to me. They tell me how old a person was, if they were right-or left-handed, if they had babies.
‘People always ask about the smell. Drownings and exhumations are the worst. The smell of rotten flesh is pretty pungent. In drowning cases the body bloats and can be very smelly. When bodies are exhumed you often find the tissue turns to a waxy substance which you need to strip off to get to the bones.
‘But once you’ve been doing the job as long as I have it stops being smelly – you don’t notice it at all, you get immune to it.’
She worked for the Catholic Church to identify the remains of Jeanne Le Ber, a Canadian recluse who died in 1714. ‘Before they could canonise her they wanted to make sure the remains in the grave were truly hers.
‘We knew she spent a lot of time praying and worked as a seamstress. I analysed the remains and found arthritis in the knees, as you would from someone who prayed a lot, and notches in her teeth from repeatedly passing thread through her mouth.’
Her most gruesome case was that of Karyn Slover, a 23-year-old whose dismembered body was found wrapped in plastic bags dumped in an Illinois lake in 1996.
‘She was shot and then chopped up. It turned out her mother-in-law and father-in-law did it because she was threatening to move their grandson to another state.’
Then there was the case of Gerald Robinson, a Catholic priest who stabbed a nun to death with a letter opener because he was sick of her whingeing.
One of the weirdest stories was of a Doomsday cult, the ‘Order of the Solar Temple’, whose leader Joseph Di Mambro was planning to take his followers to Sirius, a planet in another universe – but only after he killed a baby he believed was the ‘anti-Christ’.
The child, Emmanuel Dutoit, was found dead with his parents in 1994 – with a stake through his heart. ‘That was a tough one,’ Reichs says. ‘I used the story as the plot for one of my books.’
Reichs loves traditional British crime writers such as Agatha Christie and cites Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as one of her favourite novels.
Now Bones the TV show is over she is working on a television adaptation about her latest creation, private eye Sunday Night.
Will she ever retire?
‘I love my work. As long as I enjoy what I do then I’ll keep on. In my line of work I’m never bored.’