Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Bone Yard Takes Dr. Brockton to Florida From the Body Farm

Several years ago, I sat in a crowd of people and watched a body decompose in a series of time-release photographs. In the heat of a Tennessee summer, the decomposition took about two weeks. I was both repelled and fascinated.

The presenter of the photographs? Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the University of Tennessee's Body Farm, a facility designed to study the field of forensic anthropology.

I first heard about the Body Farm in Patricia Cornwell's book of the same name, one of her Kay Scarpetta series novels. In that session at the Southern Festival of Books (in Memphis that year), I became interested in Bass's work.

When I heard that Bass was beginning a fictional series based on his life's work, I was intrigued. Teaming up with former journalist Jon Jefferson, Bass has written a series of books starring main character Bill Brockton, a UT forensic anthropologist mirrored after Bass. The series in order, followed by links to my reviews:
This past March, the duo, writing under the pseudonym Jefferson Bass, published the sixth book in the series, The Bone Yard. All five previous books have been set in Tennessee, from northeast Tennessee to Knoxville to Chattanooga to Oak Ridge (save one business trip to Vegas). This sixth book departs from that slightly in that Brockton stays in the south, but in northern Florida rather than Tennessee.

When a trainee has to leave a Body Farm training camp early to return to Florida, she asks Dr. Bill Brockton to assist her. The investigation? Her sister's death, ruled a suicide by the coroner but suspected by trainee Angie St. Clair to be a result of domestic violence. That case is what initially pulls Brockton to Florida. However, once there he's asked to consult on a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) case involving a skull found by a hound.

When that case turns into a deeper mystery, Brockton makes a second trip to Florida for a lengthier stay. They track the missing skulls -- now plural -- to the site of an old boys' reform school, long closed after a fire that destroyed the school and killed several boys. An old diary found at the site uncovers secrets covered up for years by state officials. After all, the reform school was a state-run institution for underage boys convicted of crimes. What the team uncovers will chill your soul.

At times difficult to read, the book examines issues that have been around as long as humans have been on this planet. Abuses of power, injustices against the weak, corruption in government. The passages from the diary were especially heart-wrenching, as they were written in the voice of an underage inmate. My mom read this book after I finished it, and she told me quite frankly that she skipped most of the diary entries. The abuse they detailed was hard to digest.

For most of the book, I missed the Tennessee setting. Although Jefferson and Bass did an excellent job of describing northern Florida (Jon Jefferson's home state, I believe), I read this series initially because they were set in my home state. So, I missed it. However, the storylines -- both the boys' school and Angie St. Clair's sister's death -- were just as good as all of the other books in the series.

The final scene in the book won it over for me. I won't spoil anything for you, but let's just say it shows insight into Brockton's character and celebrates the Florida setting at the same time. It is a beautifully written scene that wraps the book up perfectly, while also setting the scene for (hopefully) more books in the series yet to come.

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