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Kathy Reichs talks bones

by Jason Derek Tchir

Kathy Reichs, forensic anthropologist and bestselling mystery writer, handled the ringing opening to her lecture with aplomb. Just as she was about to speak, a fire drill in the Hall Building sent speaker and audience out of the D.B. Clarke Theatre and into the rain for 30 minutes.

The author of Dj Dead (1997) and this year's hit, Death du Jour, started working with Quebec police when she taught anthropology here and at McGill University about 10 years ago.

She is called in when skeletal remains are found and need to be identified. Reichs has to determine whether or not they are human ("I had one moose case this year"), when they died, how they died, and what happened to the bones after death.

Working with experts such as entomologists and dentists, Reichs has been able to solve real-life mysteries. In 1994, she was able to identify the 380-year-old remains of a seamstress who lived as a recluse. The identification was based on marks made on the woman's teeth by years of holding thread there while sewing. The incident inspired Death du Jour.

Her audience alternately cringed at the grisly slides, were fascinated by the information that can be drawn out of bare bones, and laughed at Reichs' dry jokes. Her just-finished third novel is inspired by motorcycle gang turf wars in Quebec.

She said she "shamelessly" draws upon her experiences in Quebec, in South Carolina (where she also works and teaches) and with the FBI to get material for her novels. She also makes use of the experts at work. She researches every element of her books, from videotaping prostitutes downtown to spending "a whole afternoon flinging around blood with an expert in a blood-spatter room that I didn't even know we had."

While Reichs has worked in cities around the world, she chose Montreal as the setting for her books. "It's one of my favourite cities," she said. "For a North American audience, it was just close enough so people would be comfortable with it, but foreign enough that people would still find it exotic."

The lecture was part of the Concordia Student Union's lecture series. CSU vice-president academic Lindsey Scully, an anthropology student, said this year's lectures were designed to reflect the varying interests of Concordia's 24,000 students. "I just wish more people had come out tonight," she said wistfully.

Missed Kathy Reichs? Geordie Theatre is holding a benefit evening at McGill's Moyse Hall on October 21 in which Tempe Brennan, the leading character in Death du Jour, will be portrayed by actress Dorothe Berryman. Tickets cost $34.50, and are available at Paragraphe Bookstore or from Geordie, at 845-9810.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.