Deja Dead

by Kathy Reichs

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 1997
Category: forensic mystery; medical thriller; series (#1)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Dr. Temperance Brennan (Tempe), a forensic anthropologist in Montreal, Quebec, is looking forward to a weekend away from the autopsy suite when she’s called to the location of some freshly-discovered human remains. The dismembered and decapitated corpse, wrapped in plastic bags, definitely isn’t a simple archeology case. Tempe tries to maintain a professional objectivity about the case of this mutilated woman, but she sees certain parallels to another case of sexual violence and murder a year ago. When the police refuse to acknowledge a serial killer might be at work, Tempe takes it on herself to investigate and possibly avenge these women’s deaths. As a result, she inadvertently crosses paths with the killer, putting her friend, her daughter, and Tempe herself in mortal peril.


Deja Dead (1997) won the Ellis Award for Best First Novel in 1997. It’s the first in Kathy Reichs’ acclaimed series of mysteries featuring Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist working in Montreal, Quebec. Deja Dead is a forensics murder mystery / serial killer hunt in the style of Patricia Cornwell. (While pathology and forensics are crucial to the story, Deja Dead isn’t really a medical thriller–there isn’t a hospital or living patient in sight.)

Tempe is a kind of French-speaking Kay Scarpetta. Both are divorced women who spend a lot of time with dead bodies (or parts of dead bodies), deal with policemen who are never quite as motivated or clever as they are, and both tell their stories in the first person. But I for one think Tempe has it all over Kay. I loved Tempe, and I thought Reichs’ writing was a big step up from most novels of this type. For a mystery/thriller, character development in this book is excellent. Tempe and her pals have depth and never seem like stereotypes, even though they possess stereotypical traits of cops, etc. Author Reichs goes a bit heavy with the metaphors sometimes, they’re usually pretty apt (“Like a croc in a river he arrived and departed unannounced by auditory cues.”), and I enjoyed her writing style.

I’d painstakingly examined the hair, searching for fibers or other trace evidence. As I separated the damp strands, I couldn’t help imagining the last time the victim had combed it, wondering if she’d been pleased, frustrated, indifferent. Good hair day. Bad hair day. Dead hair day.

A couple of minor complaints: A crucial motivation for Tempe is that none of the police believe a serial killer is responsible for the murder and dismemberment of several women whose remains she has examined. Given the similarities in the cases, this seems preposterous. Another problem: A real-life woman named Brennan–romantic suspense author Allison Brennan–talks about characters who are “too stupid to live”. Typified by the slasher-flick female who enters a darkened basement wearing a G-string while a chainsaw killer is on the loose in her neighborhood, a “too stupid to live” character does things that make the reader cringe because they’re so blatantly foolish. Dr. Temperance Brennan is a very believably smart woman, so when she does some after-dark investigating–alone–in a creepy, stormy, abandoned monastery garden marked on a map by a serial killer, I did cringe a bit at the stupidity of her actions.

Deja Dead gets 5 biohazards for meticulous and presumably accurate forensic details (about body decomposition, bone structure, microscopic saw marks, etc.) that feel like part of the narrative, not like an author showing off. Author Kathy Reichs has a right to show off–she is Tempe’s alter-ego, an actual forensic anthropologist who intimately knows her setting, Quebec. Heavy local flavor from Montreal is a real strength of this book.

Overall a stunning debut novel, well-plotted, well-written, full of well-developed characters. I’m eager to read more Temperance Brennan!

Parent alert: gruesome forensic details of sexual and other violence, though the violence itself is not portrayed; some profanity.

If you love this book tune in to: Bones on FOX TV, a Temperance Brennan series set in Tempe’s younger days working in Washington, D.C. Kathy Reichs is a producer for the show.

Kathy Reichs’s Temperance Brennan series:
Deja Dead (1997); Death du Jour (1999); Deadly Decisions (2000); Fatal Voyage (2001); Grave Secrets (2002); Bare Bones (2003); Monday Mourning (2005); Cross Bones (2005); Break No Bones (2006); Bones to Ashes (2007); Devil Bones (2008); 206 Bones (2009)

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