The novelist/forensic anthropologist talks about her crossover jobs

By Clarissa Cruz
September 01, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The first thing you notice is the smell, an eerie cocktail of formaldehyde and hospital disinfectant reminiscent of a high school biology lab. To the left is a specimen room crammed with jars, plastic tubs, and translucent buckets containing human lung, spleen, liver, and kidney samples floating in rust-colored preserving solution. To the right are two hulking stainless steel examining tables, each with its own industrial-size sinks, suction hoses, and fluorescent lamps. In the middle of it all is writer Kathy Reichs, 51, who’s fiddling with an everyday kitchen utensil.

”You might use it if you’ve got a lot of blood in the cavity,” she says, making scooping motions with the steel soupspoon. ”It’s for ladling fluids. Exactly what you think it would be used for.”

Except we’re nowhere near a kitchen — and food is the last thing on our minds. We’re in a chilly morgue autopsy room, and Reichs, forensic anthropologist, university professor, and best-selling author (Death du Jour, Déjà Dead), is demonstrating how her professional expertise bolsters her fiction.

”It takes a certain makeup to go into this line of work, a certain ability to detach from the smell of decomposition or the sight of swarming maggots,” explains Reichs, who started dissecting dead sand sharks at age 9. ”In the books, I try to bring out the feelings those of us who work on the victims of violence experience. I don’t think you can research that.”

And while she’s often compared to fellow thriller writer Patricia Cornwell (who worked at the Virginia medical examiner’s office for six years before committing to a career as a novelist), Reichs continues to split her time between the North Carolina chief medical examiner’s office and Quebec’s Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale, in addition to often providing expert testimony at criminal trials.

Her latest, Deadly Décisions, is the third novel to feature her scrappy heroine, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. This time around, Brennan is investigating biker gangs in Montreal whose seedy activities result in a series of grisly deaths. As she juggles a visiting college-age nephew, discrimination in a male-dominated field, and a really bad haircut, Brennan tries to literally piece together the human evidence before she gets caught in the crossfire.

”Out of the three books, I had the most fun doing this one,” says Reichs, who rode surveillance with Canadian Wolverine units and worked with organized-crime detectives to get the minutiae of the Harley-heavy subculture just right. She also enlisted the help of a forensics expert who taught her the intricacies of bloodstain analysis by taking her into a white-papered room and flinging cow blood around in order to scrutinize the blood-spatter patterns.

Which leads us to the ultimate question: Does anything gross out Reichs?

”The goriest tend to be plane crashes and people throwing themselves in front of trains,” she says. ”In terms of smell, floaters are pretty bad because their bodies tend to bloat.”

Lovely. Maybe we’ll just skip lunch.