Déjà Dead – Kathy Reichs
I’m finding it hard to review Déjà Dead objectively. For one thing, as pretty much any review will mention, the novel’s protagonist, Dr Temperance Brennan, is much more recognisable from the context of the TV interpretation Bones, and as the two incarnations share very little common ground, for someone who has come to Kathy Reichs’ book by way of the adaptation, it’s difficult not to compare. The other reason is that apart from Murder on the Orient Express, Déjà Dead is the first straight crime novel I’ve read that wasn’t written by a Swedish or Icelandic author. Given that “Scandi-crime” has almost become its own genre in the last few years with a set of recognisable tropes and clichés, reading a book by an Anglophone author set in the 1990s was quite jarring to me, almost at culture shock levels. So for long time readers of crime fiction, bear with me.
On the topic of culture shock, this is really what informs much of Brennan’s characterisation throughout the novel. An American academic moved to Montreal the year before the last referendum for Québécois independence, Brennan naturally finds herself clashing with a predominantly Francophone community. She also struggles to work alongside law enforcement who view her as at best an interference and at worst a liability. There’s also a couple of episodes where she interacts with prostitutes and other members of what would usually be called the “shady underbelly”, and she definitely doesn’t understand them. As a theme, there are plenty worse ones, but it does get tiring after a while, and I did find myself getting frustrated at her for the stupid decisions she made. For example going to a crime scene, on her own, at 4 in the morning, when she knows that she may be a target. I suppose that naïvety is as good a defining character trait as any, but it’s not exactly a particularly compelling one.
In terms of actual plot, the crime is a fairly standard “serial killer preying on young women” affair, and while there were some interesting twists and false leads throughout, the investigation stumbles along for most of the 500 pages without making much headway. This is probably realistic, and it was interesting seeing the detectives (and Brennan) piece it together, it wasn’t exactly exciting. There are attempts to widen the scope a bit, including Brennan’s relationships with her daughter, and an erratic university friend who seems mixed up in the case somehow. Unfortunately, until the last hundred or so pages, none of it really adds helps the plot along, and in parts it just makes the book feel more bloated.
What disappointed me is that there isn’t actually that much in the way of forensic work, let alone forensic anthropology. Brennan does some crime scene work, but aside from a bit of applicable intelligence about the way saws interact with bones, she could as well be a psychologist or a biologist, or any other kind of academic. The thing that I understood was supposed to be the series defining characteristic never really materialised. Without it, I didn’t feel much of an urge to read any of Dr Brennan’s further adventures.
One last thing to pick up on was that the version I read was a special 15th Anniversary edition, though quite what was special about it, I don’t know. The only reason I bring it up is that there were a number of mistakes that really should have been picked up in copy editing. At one point Brennan had a brief conversation with herself and not the detective context suggested she was talking to, and there were a few words here and there that were spelled incorrectly. Not enough to ruin the reading experience, but worth drawing attention to.
Errors aside, Déjà Dead wasn’t a bad book, but I definitely prefer the more nuanced Scandinavian style of protagonist, and really without a firmer basis in the “forensic anthropology” concept, it didn’t have much to set itself apart from a genre full of notable names.