Jefferson Bass, author of The Devil’s Bones, is a man of two minds. Literally. “Jefferson Bass” is the pseudonym used by journalist Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass (the founder of the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility and its famous Body Farm) for their Body Farm series of forensic thrillers. Jefferson is the writer half and Bass the forensic-expert half of the team; the two previous novels in their series—Carved in Bone and Flesh and Bone—were both New York Times bestsellers.
Despite a lumbering opening paragraph that could win first prize in an Edward Bulwer-Lytton competition (“The last drop of daylight was fading from the western sky—a draining that seemed more a suffocation than a sunset, a final gasp as the day died of heatstroke”), the pace picks up after page four and skates along smoothly after that.
The hero of the novel, forensic expert Dr. Bill Brockton, has plenty of irons in the fire. Or, to be more accurate, plenty of bones. When the charred remains of a local woman are found inside an incinerated car, Brockton theorizes that by studying the fracture pattern in the bones of burn victims, he can tell whether they were torched while still alive or imprisoned in the car and then burned. If the bones in the body are not already dry and partly skeletonized, he says, the “green” bone of a fresh body would still contain moisture, thus eliminating the element of an accidental fire, caused by a cigarette, for instance, and indicating murderous intent.
In addition to this intriguing case, Brockton is assigned to help identify the remains of hundreds of bodies at a Georgia crematorium that has long before stopped cremating dearly departed loved ones brought in by grieving relatives. Instead, the proprietors dump the bodies in the woods or a lake but still collect their money by giving the family remains consisting of sand, cement powder, and pebbles. And let’s not forget the evil former medical examiner Garland Hamilton, who has a few forensic tricks up his own incendiary sleeve. He escapes from jail as he is about to go on trial for murdering Brockton’s lover and now poses a threat to both Brockton and his brilliant assistant, Miranda. When a burned body is found in the aftermath of a fire in a rural cabin after Hamilton is traced to the scene, Brockton and Miranda must find absolute proof that it is indeed Hamilton’s body or risk letting the killer remain free.
There’s plenty of excitement between the long segments that describe Knoxville. These descriptions are so detailed that a stranger to the city could actually find his way around instead of using MapQuest to locate, for instance, Middlebrook Pike, Farragut, the University of Tennessee, Sequoyah Hills, or downtown. Jefferson Bass is also fond of singing the praises of Hardee’s biscuits, Cracker Barrel’s corn muffins, and sweet tea. He also sets up a red-herring subplot that seems unnecessary when he temporarily casts suspicion on Miranda and her innocent relationship with a faculty member.
The description of Knoxville’s summer drought provides the basis for the title of the book. Brockton stops his car by a formerly lush pond near the Body Farm and then gets out to study the dry, shrunken hole. “Peering down into the fissures,” he says, “I flashed back to a childhood fear that had haunted me one hot, dry summer half a century before: What if the devil managed to escape from hell and break free through the cracks in the ground?”
In this case, the devil has Hamilton’s face, and Brockton has to race to solve his forensic puzzles.
One of the most interesting segments of the novel concerns the plight of the homeless in Knoxville. In this case, one of the unfortunate transients becomes an integral part of the puzzle created by the escape of Garland Hamilton.
Despite some of the plot’s shortcomings, readers will glean reams of information about forensic science from this novel and will delight in the slow and delicate bone-by-bone solutions to murders, accidents, and—yes—even devilry.