The pairing of Dr. Bill Bass, forensic anthropologist, and journalist Jon Jefferson, together writing as Jefferson Bass, gives birth to protagonist Dr. Bill Brocton of the University of Tennessee’s Body Farm - a teaching facility for a new breed of scientific criminal investigators. Long gone are the days when a murderer could disappear from a crime scene without a trace. Now every crime yields a bounty of clues, whether under a microscope or aggregated into a criminal profile as technology changes the landscape of law enforcement.
The authors are on target with their plot; the public has expressed an insatiable curiosity for this new era of crime fighters, Brocton’s Body Farm a proving ground for students, albeit a gruesome one. When former student Angie St. Claire requires Brocton’s help with the recent “suicide” of her sister, her mentor is happy to oblige. Attending to the exhumation of St. Claire’s sister’s body, both forensic anthropologists are present when the skull of a young boy is unearthed by a foraging dog. As an agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Angie welcomes Brocton’s input, especially when another skull suggests a secret cemetery, a bone yard belonging to the North Florida Boy’s Reformatory in the 1960s, where boys were systematically beaten and abused by those charged with their care.
Outrage and grief have no place in this specialized field, Angie forced to sublimate her feelings to prove her sister didn’t commit suicide, both St. Claire and Brocton turning to the scientific procedures they depend upon to uncover the horrors of the reformatory and hold someone accountable, even after all these years: “Live oaks, dead boys, resurrection ferns.” Like other such new-wave crime novels and popular TV shows, the answers lie in careful and specific examination of trace evidence, building a solid case from fragments of the past, including an old diary written by one of the incarcerated boys.
By its nature, this type of thriller is dominated by science, a clean field without emotional clutter to confuse evidentiary connections. Despite Brocton’s awkward attempts at humor, Angie’s grief, or the understandable rage against the abusers of helpless boys, the tenor of the story flatlines with only the occasional spike of complexity in the plot. The result is an often clumsy blend where attention to detail achieves results, facial reconstruction, the interpretation of physical evidence, secrets revealed under a microscope that point to a precise cause of death, the messier elements- emotions- detrimental, if unavoidable.
There is an inherent conflict in this dichotomy, but the authors haven’t mastered that element of storytelling. Perhaps it is the problem of two minds writing as one or the sterility of scientific technology, but that intuitive spark is missing from this novel. The specifics may be enough for fans, but for me there is a chasm between the lab and the humans who fail to balance either.