SPEAKING IN BONES

By Kathy Reichs

Bantam. 302 pp. $28

I seriously dislike reading the autopsy scenes that often pop up in crime fiction. When the scalpel flashes and the cutting is nigh, my trembling heart cries, “Please, can’t you just bury the poor guy?” I therefore feared the worst from Kathy Reichs’s new novel, given that she’s a forensic anthropologist who writes a best-selling series about a fictional forensic anthropologist. Although “Speaking in Bones” has murders aplenty, there seemed to be no reason for an autopsy because most of the victims have been reduced to dried bones scattered across the mountains of North Carolina.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read at the start of Chapter 17, with nary a corpse in sight, “Most autopsies follow a standard routine,” followed by a page-long, all-too-graphic account of that routine, offering tidbits such as this, on the fate of the brain: “After every inch of its complex surface is observed, it is cut with a long fillet knife, much like sausage.” (And would you believe that a few pages earlier Reichs had her heroine devouring sausage for breakfast?) Given that her plot afforded no reason for that autopsy guide, I assume that Reichs included it because her loyal readers demand such a scene, just as in my youth, teenage boys expected to find what then passed for sex scenes in the novels of Erskine Caldwell and Mickey Spillane.

Autopsies aside, “Speaking in Bones” is smart and pleasurable. Reichs’s Temperance Brennan, who seems to be in her mid-40s, works with the county medical examiner in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County. One day she is visited by a woman who proves to be a Web sleuth — someone who tries to solve cold cases and match missing people with unidentified remains. Law enforcement tends not to greet these amateur crime fighters with open arms, but they are a fascinating phenomenon, one that Reichs examines in detail.

‘Speaking in Bones’ by Kathy Reichs (Bantam)

This woman’s information leads Brennan to investigate the case of a teenager who has been missing for three years. The girl’s parents insist that she has run off with a boyfriend — and good riddance, they say, because their religious views led them to scorn their daughter as immoral. Brennan’s stubborn search for the girl leads her to religious fanaticism and the possibility of exorcism, a process that, as Reichs documents, sometimes leads to “accidental” deaths when the imagined devil inside someone, often a child, refuses to emerge peacefully.

It’s an interesting plot, but I was equally impressed by Reichs’s characterization of Brennan. She surely ranks with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone among the most interesting women protagonists in American crime fiction. Besides fighting crime, Brennan is busy dealing with her mother, sexist colleagues in law enforcement and two men who are candidates for her affections. The problems with her loving but difficult mother, who’s in a nursing home, come to a head when Brennan exclaims, “My mother, gray-haired and dying of cancer, was madly in love.”

Brennan, having shed an unfaithful husband, struggles to choose between two possible partners. One is her long-distance lover, a detective in Montreal who wants to marry her; the problem is she fears that his “overprotectiveness implies that I can’t take care of myself.” Closer at hand, she’s tempted by a handsome deputy sheriff she has met on the missing-girl case. She also spends time drinking diet colas, eating junk food and talking things over with her beloved cat, Birdie. (“Cats don’t care if you talk with your mouth full.”) Brennan is funny, complicated and believable.

The book has too much medical jargon, but it also features crisp writing that’s thoughtful, tough-minded and lyrical. When Brennan offers condolences to a Web sleuth on her husband’s death, the no-nonsense woman replies succinctly, “He knew the risk, chose to smoke.” As Brennan searches for bodies in the mountains, “The mixed pine and deciduous forest was so thick it was like crossing into a trompe l’oeil mural built of shadow and light.” And Reichs weaves in a quotation from the French priest-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Still, the novel’s most memorable line is Brennan’s declaration that “The Devil’s Tail bucket definitely contained Mason Gulley’s head.” Trust me, that makes perfect sense in context. Thus are murders solved.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.