NPR Story
12:30 pm
Fri August 31, 2012

Meet The Brains Behind "Bones"

Originally published on Fri August 31, 2012 12:44 pm

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Up next, the brains behind "Bones." If you go to the beach this weekend and check out what the other sunbathers are reading, there's a good chance you'll come across someone deep into a Temperance Brennan crime novel. Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, the person the police call when they find human remains that are, well, past their prime, if we say.

And if the name Temperance Brennan sounds familiar to you non-readers, it's because she's also the heroine at the center of the TV series "Bones." Brennan is a fictional crime fighter, bus she's based on the work of a real person, Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. She was a consultant to the office of the chief medical examiner in North Carolina, and she currently works with the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Medecine Legale - I hope I got that right - for the province of Quebec.

She's also the author of many, many crime mystery novels. Her latest book out this week is called "Bones are Forever." Dr. Reichs is also one of the producers for the TV series "Bones." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. KATHY REICHS: Thank you for inviting me.

FLATOW: My apologies to your office in Montreal.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: You did a very good job on that.

FLATOW: My high school French is a little bit rusty. How did you get - you're a scientist. How did you get involved in writing books? What made you cross over?

REICHS: I made full professor at the university, and I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. And I had done scientific books, textbooks, journal articles. And I just thought it would be fun to write fiction. I had never done that - well maybe my resume, but...

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: So - and I also thought it might bring my science to a broader audience. So I had just worked on a serial murder case up in Montreal, and I thought it had some interesting elements. So I gave it a shot.

FLATOW: Wow. Tell us exactly what the definition of a forensic anthropologist is. What does someone do?

REICHS: We're physical anthropologists with a specialty in the human skeleton, but we go beyond that, and we do extra training so that we can work in legal contexts. And we get board certification from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

Most of us work for coroners and medical examiners, maybe for the military, for the law enforcement agencies, helping mainly two questions. One would be: Who is it? You know, if you get - as you say, the remains we work on are in less than prime condition. They're burned, mutilated, mummified, decomposed, dismembered, maybe just skeletons. So we help with identification.

And then the second thing I'm often asked to address is manner of death. Can I see anything in the bones that tells me there is a gunshot wound or a sharp instrument trauma or blunt instrument trauma, that can tell me about cause and manner of death? Sometimes the question is time since death; how long has the individual been dead or what happened to their body after they died?

FLATOW: All right, we're going to come back and talk lots more with Kathy Reichs. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk with her, 1-800-989-TALK. Or you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. She is one of the producers of the TV series "Bones," and we're talking about bones and her new book. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Dr. Kathy Reichs. She is author of the latest book out this week, "Bones Are Forever." She's also one of the producers for the TV series "Bones." And our number, 1-800-989-8255. How close to the real job that you do is the work that we see on TV?

REICHS: Well, everything we use on "Bones" is real - the technology, the methodologies, the terminologies. What's different is that in real life every single case does not get solved. You don't find that, you know, sliver of skin cells in an acre of grass that cracked the case open. You - we won't make mistakes on our show like having your DNA results in 12 minutes, that sort of thing.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: But I do think some of these shows, most of these shows, raise expectations among jurors, among the general public, for example, that every single time you're going to get the case solved.

FLATOW: And they use an incredible amount of equipment that I'll bet no local municipality can afford to buy.

REICHS: Yes, like the - we used to call in the Angelator(ph), now we call it the Angelitron(ph). It's a three-dimensional holographic reconstruction apparatus, and it does exist. Now, have I ever been in a crime or medical legal lab that has one? No.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: They're expensive.

FLATOW: Right. I want to play a clip from the show. Let me see if I can set this up right. This is the TV character Temperance Brennan. She's playing you. And in this episode, Temperance - they call her Bones here - is going to do a taping of a TV show that she's - that's been made about her work. So it's just like a TV show within a TV show, and she's - she gets upset at the way they handle the science. So let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BONES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Action.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) What do you think, Bonesie? Look like an accident to you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No, this was definitely no accident. The victim suffered a penetrating trauma to the chest bones, followed by a massive cardiacal eruption.

EMILY DESCHANEL: (as Temperance Brennan) Cardiacal is not a word.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Let's just roll with it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I could extract the medial epicondyle and have the (unintelligible) team run tests to see if she was a member of Demetrius' terrorist group.

DESCHANEL: (as Brennan) The medial epicondyle is not in the chest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) This pollen - our victim was near an olive grove.

DESCHANEL: (as Brennan) You wouldn't be able to tell that with just a magnifying glass.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) (as character) Oh, let's take a closer look. And then we can look at that.

DESCHANEL: (as Brennan) Wait, stop, cut, cut, cut.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) No. No, no. God, oh no.

DESCHANEL: (as Brennan) What? Oh God. Cut.

FLATOW: Cut, cut.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: We had a lot of fun with that episode.

FLATOW: How close to that to what really happens on making the TV show? Do you yell cut sometimes, saying that doesn't really happen?

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: I don't. I occasionally will say to the writers or to our executive producers - no, no, no, you can't do that, or you can't say that. The premise that episode's based on, one of the central premises for the show is that Temperance Brennan is a fulltime anthropologist by day, and in her spare time and at night she writes about a fictional anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.

So they've done this 180 flip-around thing.

FLATOW: Here's a quote from an interview you did with The Observer in 2006 about a fellow author. You say that Patsy Cornwell is a writer, not a scientist, she says firmly, because I write what I do rather than researching the field. It gives my books greater authenticity. Many fiction writers who put the science in don't get it right.

REICHS: I might have said that.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: Are you reading that back to the jury?

FLATOW: No. I mean, I'm saying that in your defense, actually, because you are on the front lines, and you work there, you have a right to say I know more about this because I'm a scientist.

REICHS: Yeah, I'm in the context regularly. I'm at the crime scene. I'm in the autopsy room. I'm, you know, at my lab in a full-spectrum medical crime lab. So I think I have a pretty good thumb on the pulse of forensic science.

FLATOW: A lot of your fans would like to talk with you, so let's go to some of them right now. Michael in - is it Fayette, Alabama?

MICHAEL: Yes, sir.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MICHAEL: We're between Memphis and Birmingham. I've forgotten the author's name. I don't watch too much network TV, but I really admire what she's doing. My question is: What would you recommend for - I'm trying to get into children's fiction writing, but because I draw in the MGM, Warner Brothers, Disney, Hanna Barbara style, but I've just never been - I was much better in science in elementary school than the grades I got in late high school, let alone college. One example...

FLATOW: Michael, have you got a question that you'd like to ask?

MICHAEL: Yes, sir. It's - what's his name, Steve - the creator of Spongebob Squarepants is a marine biologist himself, Stephen Hillenburg, but I don't know all that much about - what would you recommend for somebody who wants to go into crime-solving stories, anything like that, but with a satirical bent and/or aimed at a younger audience? What would you recommend for the scientific research for the characters, for the equipment, and I guess you could call it hang out and so forth. Thanks so much, I'll take your answer off the air.

FLATOW: OK, thanks for calling.

REICHS: Well, I would recommend that you take a look at some of the forensic journals. You might get ideas from there. There are books that have been written for young adults on forensic science. I do a series for young adults featuring Temperance Brennan's 14-year-old great-niece, and she and her friends use forensic science at kind of a middle-school, high-school level.

So those would be a template for that sort of literature. And then once you've written it, and you've researched it, and you've gotten it to where you think it's perfect, find yourself an agent.

FLATOW: Yes, good luck.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to another question because lots of people are asking. Amanda in Charlotte. Hi, Amanda, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

AMANDA: Hi, thank you for having me. First of all Kathy, I'm a big fan. I've heard you speak at some of the (unintelligible) conferences and stuff. I'm a forensic scientist in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the biology section. And I was just curious, in your experiences, how your forensic anthropology has intersected with the other sections: biology, fingerprints, firearms, stuff like that. Because I have not had much interaction with anthropologists. So I was just curious about your experiences.

REICHS: Well, like Tempe on TV, I don't work alone. I work with a team. The way I do it at the lab where I'm primarily functioning is that there are all different departments, and if I have a question for the DNA people or the biology people or the hair and fiber people, I just walk down the corridor and I talk to them, or I package up my evidence and send it on over.

Nobody works alone. It's always a team effort. So there's a lot of interaction between the different specialties.

FLATOW: There seems like, with budget cuts going across the country, that lots of crime labs are being closed down, and...

REICHS: Yeah, a major crime lab was closed in London recently too.

FLATOW: Yeah, I'm reading here a story in the Washington Post about the shutdown of a Massachusetts drug lab in Boston. They're saying that, you know, now the defense lawyers are happy.

REICHS: Well, it's ironic on the one hand. There are complaints about the long delays and the long queues to get your samples analyzed. And then on the other hand, there are cutbacks and fund - you know, funding reductions, and one is related to the other.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us, @scifri. Does our crime system, does our crime laboratory system, need an overhaul?

REICHS: Well, the forensic sciences have come under scrutiny recently. There was a recent study and showed that there are some issues. And some of these are fairly high-profile situations where you have either dishonesty or incompetence.

One of the things that all of the professional specialties are doing is moving towards board certification requirement, that not anybody can get an undergraduate degree in psychology or anthropology or chemistry and hang out their shingle. You've got to have a process of peer evaluation, and what we're doing is board certification.

I'm certified, for example, by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. So that's moving in the right direction, I think.

FLATOW: Because, you know, a lot of the crime-solving techniques that people are using, including fingerprinting and other things, have never really been tested scientifically. They were just accepted per se over the last decade.

REICHS: Right, and some of them need more scrutiny than others, those that use pattern recognition analysis, for example. And in some cases it's not the methodology, like fingerprinting, it's the individual analyzing or interpreting what they're seeing.

FLATOW: Let's go to Alan(ph) in Mill Valley, California. Hi, Alan, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALAN: Yes, Dr. Reichs, I had a quick question - if you had ever seen "Frame 313," (unintelligible) it deals with the JFK assassination, and if you ever do any forensic historic type examinations on something like that, and just based on the information that's already been presented out there, if you've been curious just to look at those old historic, you know, historical issues and comment on them. And I'll take my answer off the line and appreciate (unintelligible).

REICHS: I have - yeah, I've seen many, many forensic scientists do reconstructions and re-analyses of the Kennedy shooting, probably including the MacGruder(ph) film, I think that's what you're referring to. Yes, I've peripherally been involved in some historic - I was asked to look at the remains of Thomas Aquinas, asked to look at photographs of the remains of the Lindbergh baby.

Those come along every now and then. The ones that interest me, I agree to get involved in, and usually it's for historic rather than forensic purposes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Are you surprised by the popularity of all the CSI shows on TV, how many there are and how they've blossomed?

REICHS: Yeah, Ira. We don't get it. You know, we worked for years in our labs, and nobody paid any attention to us. And then suddenly, somewhere in the mid-'90s, we're, you know, we're hot. We're sexy. And we really don't know where that came from, unless, you know, maybe it started about the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, and people were hearing, you know, 24/7 about blood spatter pattern analysis and bludgeoning trajectories. And, you know, maybe it all stems from that. Who knows? And, of course, shows like "Bones" and my books and...

FLATOW: Right. Well, as you know, science is really a mystery, right? People solve - scientists are solving mysteries, and this is maybe what people are looking for.

REICHS: Well - and people have always been interested in murder mysteries. The difference in the type of book I write, like "Bones Are Forever," is that it's a science-driven solution rather than gut instinct or intuition or good old-fashioned legwork by a detective. And I think people read the books, and they like to think they've learned a little bit about science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Are they based on real cases in your book?

REICHS: Yeah. They're based either on cases very loosely, and of course I change the names and the dates and all the details for both legal and ethical reasons. The first book, "Deja Dead," for example, was based on a serial murder case, dismemberment case that I did. Or they're based on an experience that I've had. "Grave Secrets" was based on going to Guatemala, exhuming a mass grave, some human rights work.

"Fatal Voyage" was based on my disaster recovery work, the type of thing I did at ground zero. In that book, she's recovering victims from a commercial airline disaster. So sometimes it's a specific case. Sometime's it's an experience I've had. "Bones Are Forever," I went to Yellowknife, way up in the Canadian Arctic last year, and I thought...

FLATOW: Right.

REICHS: ...this is a great place to set a book.

FLATOW: You also are not afraid to put some non-crime science in your books. You talk about diamonds and things like that.

REICHS: Yeah. This time we get into a little geology and how diamonds are formed and how you find these buggers. They're very difficult to find, but it's worth looking for.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. A lot of people would like to talk to you. Let's see if we can - people want - here's a - here you go. Let's go to Abdullah(ph) in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Hi there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ABDULLAH: Hello. Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

ABDULLAH: Hi. OK. I was just going to say that so quickly. I'm going to just tell you that I am a big fan of your books, and besides you being a scientist, I think you're an artist. I love all your books. I love the way you - you are so non-predictable. And as a big fan of the show "Bones," I just want to say - or maybe just - I knew that you are one of the producers. I just knew that from this show. So if you can, I don't know, somehow bring the gravedigger episode. I know she's dead, but if somehow you can bring her back or anything like these episodes back. They were perfect. They were so non-predictable. And that's it. Thank you so much for your time.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

REICHS: Well, thank you for your comments.

FLATOW: All right. Let's see if we can bring back...

REICHS: People love to hate the gravedigger.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Kathy Reichs about her new book "Bones Are Forever." You got a new - you have a new one in the works you're working on?

REICHS: Yeah. "Bones Are Forever" just came out two days ago, so I'm now working on number 16. Last November, I was honored to be invited with four other authors to go on a USO tour to Afghanistan. So to thank the troops for their service over there, and so I'm going to draw on that experience and visiting forward operating bases and flying around in Black Hawk helicopters and take the old girl over to the Middle East.

FLATOW: There you go. Let's go to David(ph) in Evansville, Indiana. Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi there. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAVID: I was reading in the newspaper this week about an island that is off of - in the river off of New York City where there are - I believe it was hundreds of thousands of graves, and that there was an effort that was being made to identify some of the bodies. How would you even begin to go about doing something like this?

REICHS: Well, now that there's DNA, a lot of those went into the ground. It's the potter's field for New York. So, yes, there are many, many, many unidentified burials there. And the medical examiner in New York City is now giving some attention to trying to get identifications using DNA and comparing maybe to family samples that have been kept on file.

FLATOW: Mm. So...

DAVID: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. So DNA is a big part of a mass grave, and you want to - I guess that's it.

REICHS: Yeah. Yeah, you can if you have comparative samples. One of the problems in places like Rwanda, where I went to testify for the genocide trial, or Guatemala is, you know, do you have those comparative samples...

FLATOW: Right.

REICHS: ...to which you can - yeah. Can't use DNA in a background - in a vacuum.

FLATOW: You ever thought about investigating fossilized bones with DNA?

REICHS: Well, you know, I started out - you've got to have something organic in there.

FLATOW: Yeah.

REICHS: And if it's completely fossilized, you've had mineral replacement of the organic component. So - but that was the premise in, what, "Jurassic Park," right?

FLATOW: Right.

REICHS: They found a mosquito or something in the amber?

FLATOW: Yeah. We always talk with anthropologists and fossil folks about new discoveries of bones. We were talking recently about a finger that was 50,000 years old, and there's still viable DNA in it to look at.

REICHS: Well - or like the ice man that was found, you know, way up in - he got himself frozen, so there was still organic material to work with.

FLATOW: You must have to turn down a lot of stuff. People want your time...

REICHS: Well...

FLATOW: ...to look at...

REICHS: Between writing a Temperance Brennan novel every year and writing a young adult novel every year and working on, you know, 22 scripts a year, yeah, it's busy. So I have to be selective.

FLATOW: Do you find that kids are interested in this stuff?

REICHS: Kids are fascinated with it. I just did a signing last night, and I can't tell you how many, from 10 years old on up, were there. A lot of them were reading the Tory Brennan material, but a lot of them are reading the Temperance Brennan books as well.

FLATOW: Do you think that this is a way to keep kids interested in science?

REICHS: I hope so, both science and writing. And I think...

FLATOW: Yeah.

REICHS: ...that's one of the things that teachers - we've - the young adult books have been shortlisted and have won, you know, best book of the year, best kid's book or whatever in a number of states, and teachers have told me it's great because you can get them interested in both writing and reading and science at the same time. And you have a strong, smart female role model.

FLATOW: Did you find you had a natural talent for writing?

REICHS: I don't know. When I started "Deja Dead," I really didn't know what I was doing. I hadn't written fiction prior to that, so I just tried to write the kind of book I like to read.

FLATOW: Right.

REICHS: I've been accused of being a minimalist writer. I don't like a lot of verbiage in there.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Sometimes less is...

REICHS: Hate adverbs.

FLATOW: Less is more sometimes.

REICHS: Yes.

FLATOW: All right. Kathy, can you stay with us a little bit longer? We're going to take a break and come back more and talk with Kathy Reichs. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. She's author of "Bones Are Forever." I guess they are. And we'll be right back. You can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our website at sciencefriday.com. Discussion is going on there. You can leave questions for us also on our Facebook page at slash scifri. We'll be right back. Don't go away. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Talking with Kathy Reichs, author of "Bones Are Forever." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Your books are very graphic. I mean, if you - and let me just read from the first page of this book. Ignoring the maggot masses, I inserted gloved fingers beneath the small torso and gently lifted one shoulder. The baby rose, thin and limbs - chin and limbs tucked tight to its chest. I guess people have to be ready for that if they're going to read your books.

REICHS: Yes. Yeah. I put in detail. I never put in anything just for grisly sensationalism, but I do put in detail. I think my readers expect it. That scene was hard to write. I started the book that way, and it kind of leads into the main story because I was working simultaneously on three child homicide cases: an 11-month-old and a 2-year-old and a 10-year-old. And, you know, the concept of the death of truly innocent victims was on my mind. These victims did nothing to put themselves at risk or ask for the violence. And so I try to bring out in Temperance Brennan, in the character, the emotions I feel when I'm in those situations.

FLATOW: Right. Mm-hmm. One last question and it comes in the form of a tweet from Tony Leman(ph), who says: When will Dr. Reichs make a guest appearance on "Bones"? I mean, they want you to do a cameo.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHS: I did that. I did that. I appeared in the second season. I was - when Zack - he's no longer with us, but when Zack was getting his PhD, I was one of the stern members of his dissertation defense - the committee when he was doing his dissertation defense.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is the show coming back in September?

REICHS: Yes. We'll be back on the 17th, I believe it is, Monday nights at eight for our eighth season, which is astounding.

FLATOW: Wow, that is astounding. All right.

REICHS: Yeah.

FLATOW: And if you don't want to wait, you can read her books. Her latest book is "Bones Are Forever." Kathy Reichs, thank you for being with us today, and have a happy holiday weekend to you.

REICHS: Oh, thank you so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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