Saturday, November 6

The Bone Thief – Jefferson Bass

Sill recovering from the twin blows of discovering Isabella, briefly his lover, was a murdered, and from the devastation her murder weapon wrought on the life of one of Tennessee’s most gifted medical examiners, famed forensic anthropologist Bill Brockton is ready for a little peace and quiet. When he and his research assistant Miranda Lovelady are asked to collect a specimen for paternity testing it seems like a straight forward enough task – exhume the body, take a sample of long bone, and compare DNA to that of the child. But when Trey Willoughby’s coffin was open it quickly became apparent that something was wrong – the body’s limbs had been amputated and replaced with PVC piping.
A little investigation quickly reveals that Trey is only the first uncovering of a number of antemortem dismemberments. In no time Bill is acting on behalf of the FBI to get to the bottom of a multi-million dollar racket, one that not only mutilates the bodies of the dead but also risks the lives of the living. At least as importantly, to Bill at least, he’s required to act in ways he finds unethical and disreputable, risking his good name, his reputation, and the high opinion of those whose regard he values; and until they know exactly who is involved, the FBI have forbidden Bill to confide in anyone, including Miranda.
The Bone Thief is the fifth in this series, one I’ve thus far enjoyed thoroughly. I had a little less fun with this instalment though, for two reasons. The first is that the plot felt a little hackneyed – in the past couple of years there have been several novels and TV episodes dealing with similar illegal activities involving profiteering, the dead, and shady undertakers, and I didn’t feel as though this added anything particularly new or different, except for the ongoing chronicling of the very interesting Bill Brockton’s life in general.
This aspect was relatively minor – rarely are novels, particularly genre novels, groundbreaking in every aspect, and I would have been just a little dissatisfied had that been all. But I was less sanguine about the new personality traits The Bone Thief revealed of Bill. His streak of Puritanism seemed to come from nowhere, so that although he’s quite comfortable sleeping with a woman he’s relatively recently met, he’s morally distressed by the necessity of going to a strip club as part of his undercover operation. The only reason we’re given is that he finds it tawdry and he doesn’t like it. I’ve got no issue wth that, but his aversion seems unrelated to any of the usual reasons: there’s no mention of immorality, feminism, commodification or power inequity; in fact, there’s no explanation at all, apart from an etiquette-based discomfort once he’s inside:
I felt myself turn crimson and was grateful for the darkness of the club. “Not to worry,” I said, unsure of what to say next. Maybe, I didn’t recognize you without your clothes. Or, How’d you get so good at gymnastics? Or maybe, Doesn’t it bother you that strange men come in to stare at your body and don’t even clap or tip?
Perhaps part of my discomfort with these sections was because Bill is given to analysis in every other aspect of his life, from his career to his relationships, but spares no introversion for the marked visceral reaction he has to the idea of a strip club. It is, granted, part of larger activity he finds increasingly morally precarious, posing as being far more comfortable in ethically grey areas than he is so as to build a case for the FBI against the matermind behind the body part thefts. But this whole sub-plot, including a blackmail scam that’s equally implausible, wholly failed to enage me.
A secondary plot, about Bill’s previously estranged son Jeff’s reaction to the news that Isabella is apparently pregnant, didn’t feel genuine. I’m not doubting that the revelation your widowed father is expecting a child younger than your own children, could come as a shock. But given the equanimity with which Jeff received the news that Bill had slept with her, and the fact that the pregnancy was clearly unplanned, his shutting down and withdrawing from Bill read more like a plot device than an authentic, character-driven response.
I also found the writing overblown at times, which pulled me out of the narrative. For example:
I stared at the small digital recorder in my hand, paralysed by the countless unspoken questions it posed, questions to which I had no answers. I was as paralysed by the machine as I’d been by the man who loaned it to me: a Knoxville psychologist named John Hoover, highly recommended by my family physician.
And then there’s the unanswered question of why a forensic anthropologist, who therefore has no medical qualifications, is accompanying a critically ill man by helicopter from one hospital to another. Well, no reason except that it increases the drama of the plot, and allows for an uncomfortably neat and tidy ending.
It’s certainly not all bad. Though not as well accomplished as the discussion about evolution in Flesh and Bone, the authors briefly discuss some of the ethical issues surrounding paying for first and third world organ donation, albeit predominantly presenting only one aspect of this increasingly topical debate. The plot is also wrapped around the growing uses and demand for cadaveric body parts other than solid organ transplantation, in combination with stem cell research and biotechnological advances.
However, particularly in comparison with the first four books of the series, I finished The Bone Thief significantly disappointed, and with hoped that the sixth in the series proves to be a return to the previous form. I haven’t given up, yet. - Alex

The Bill Brockton series:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone
The Devil’s Bones
Bones of Betrayal
The Bone Yard
The Bone Thief

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