Like many writers, Kathy Reichs spends a lot of her time in front of a computer screen. Her view, however, is better than many: the seagrass-covered dunes and white-capped waves of the Atlantic Ocean, glimpsed through the windows of her beach house on a South Carolina barrier island. Somewhere outside her office door are her visiting daughter and grandkids, plus her dog and a cat called Skinny.
Reichs, who splits her time between this coastal retreat and her home in Charlotte, N.C., has a name that lives in the pantheon of modern crime fiction. (Also known as the bestseller table in every airport bookstore.) Alongside Patricia Cornwell, she essentially invented the wildly popular subgenre of “forensic fiction,” one of the first to pair the science of the morgue lab with the art of the detective’s intuition.
She published the first book in her Temperance Brennan series – inspired by her own work as a forensic anthropologist, which included stints working with Quebec’s police force – in 1997. It became a bestseller and went on to win the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel, essentially a crime-writing Oscar. Further books went on to be smash hits, translated into more than 30 languages, and also spawned the Emmy-nominated Bones, which ran for 12 seasons.
A quarter-century after Déja Dead, Reichs – just as delightfully straightforward and briskly funny as her beloved heroine – is now at work on her 23rd novel in the series, having just published her 22nd, The Bone Hacker, a few weeks ago.
The Globe chatted with Reichs about writing while working full time, why forensic science is so fascinating, and how the book series might end.
When you were bashing out that first Temperance Brennan, was a series with 22 books in it even remotely in your consciousness as something that could be possible?
I just hoped it would be good enough that someone would want to publish it, and that someone would buy it and like it. That’s it.
Were there decisions that you made in that first book that, now 22 books in, you wish you hadn’t made?
Maybe the fact that I made her a non-drinker? I don’t go into it a lot, but there are allusions to her colourful history with alcohol, so Temperance hasn’t been a drinker for years. Sometimes I’d like to be able to have her sit down with Ryan [her partner] and have a glass of wine or something. But it is what it is.
Now that you’re 25 years into your career as a bestselling author, has your relationship to that word changed?
To the word bestseller? I see it used pretty casually. People refer to themselves as “bestseller” if they’ve made their high-school paper or something. I guess I’ve always been raising the bar on myself. With that first initially, I just hoped I could get it published. It did go on to The New York Times bestseller list, and it went to No. 1 in London. I don’t know how that happened! And after that, you hope you make the list again, and you hope you make it higher up, and you hope you stay longer on it. You’re always raising the bar for yourself.
The British seem to be voracious crime readers. Whenever I speak to crime authors, the U.K. is often one of their biggest markets.
Yes, they love me in the U.K. What can I say?
Do you find that different audiences around the world respond to different things in these books?
I think so. I haven’t done any international touring for a while, but I think the kinds of questions that journalists and attendees at events ask do differ. The Italians are always asking about life after death and religion – ‘Do you believe in God?’ that kind of thing – whereas the French couldn’t care less about that.
In terms of crime writing as a genre, do you feel like it’s changed and evolved since you published your first one in 1997?
Oh, absolutely. Every single book now puts in a coroner or a medical examiner or a forensics lab. You used to be able to read and there was no mention of forensic analysis, but now everybody has their cop visiting the morgue.
In a post-CSI world, it’s probably hard to think back and realize how revolutionary a character like Temperance probably was in introducing that skill set to audiences.
I don’t think anyone had ever heard of us, certainly not forensic anthropology. I don’t know where all that interest started, because all of a sudden forensic science became hot. Maybe it was the O.J. Simpson trial, when people were hearing about blood spatter pattern analysis and DNA.
What is it about forensics that we find so interesting? Is it this idea that there is information we can’t see with a naked eye? There’s more than we can perceive going on?
I think it’s the problem-solving, the mystery-solving. People read thrillers and mysteries because it’s fun to try to solve it. The difference with forensics, and with my books, is that the solution to the mystery is science-driven. They enjoy trying to solve the puzzle before the authors tells them whodunit – and I think they enjoy learning about those different areas.
You’re also a bit of a science communicator. So much of what these books are is education disguised in the Trojan horse of a fascinating intrigue.
I’ve heard from professionals who teach residents in medicine or university-level courses in chemistry or whatever, that they use my books as a supplement because it makes it so that it’s not just dry science, it shows them how that area of expertise can be used in real-world problem-solving. When I write these books though, I want the science to be in there and I want it to be educational, but it also has to be brief. It has to be jargon-free and we can’t use all that specialized terminology we use among ourselves as experts. And it has to be entertaining!
Do you feel like as readers, we increasingly need that next even stranger, even more bizarre thing to keep us hooked? That we’re requiring more and more from our crime authors in the weirdness stakes?
I think people always want to see something new. They don’t want to read the same plot line over and over. I’m not sure that’s new. Thriller readers are very sophisticated and they expect a lot of the author. You put in clues – and they can be red herring clues, that’s legitimate, that’s fair as long as you explain everything and don’t rely on coincidence. That’s a very disappointing technique that authors sometimes use.
Was one of these books the hardest to write?
The hardest was the first one, because I’d never done it before and I don’t have any training in creative writing. I was just trying to write the kind of book I like to read. I was also teaching university full time, and also commuting between North Carolina and Montreal doing casework.
Have you reread that first one?
I haven’t reread it, but I have had to go back to it to check things. Thriller readers are very savvy. If you say something in an earlier book and it’s different in a later one, they’ll catch it.
Where do you think you’ve improved as a writer since then?
I really like writing dialogue, so hopefully my dialogue has gotten better. I like putting humour in the books. That was one thing we were all on the same page about for the TV show as well. Putting humour in is tough. You have to have a very delicate touch, because every book or episode deals with violent death.
Do you think you will know when it’s time to say goodbye to Temperance Brennan?
There will have to be an end. Everything comes to an end. I haven’t decided that yet. The book I’m working on is Number 23. I’m on a two-book contract, and I’m not sure if the second book will be Temperance Brennan or not. When I do write an ending, it will be one that allows me a loophole a few years down the road. It won’t be one of things where the series was a dream and she wakes up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.