My mother cried when I announced, at the end of my freshman year in college, that I was changing my major from pre-med to English. “But how will you make a living?” she wailed.
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I conceded. “But I’m pretty smart. I’ll probably figure out something.”
Over the years, that “something” has ranged from editing technical reports to teaching teenagers about sex and HIV/AIDS to making television documentaries about aircraft carriers and Vatican art treasures. Now, years later – jaw-droppingly many years later – I’ve just finished writing The Inquisitor’s Key, the seventh crime novel in the Body Farm series. More about the book momentarily, because it’s my favorite of the bunch, and it’s the reason I’m launching this blog – to share behind-the-scenes stories with readers between now and when the book comes out on May 8. But first, a bit of background on the series itself.
The Body Farm series is published under the pen name “Jefferson Bass”: my last name + the last name of Dr. Bill Bass, my scientific collaborator on the books. Bass is a forensic anthropologist – a bone detective – best known for creating the Body Farm. Officially (and boringly) called the Anthropology Research Facility, the Body Farm is the world’s first and foremost laboratory devoted to the study of postmortem human decay.
Yes, postmortem human decay. Decomposition. Decomp. Shuffling off this mortal coil. Or – to borrow a phrase from musician George Clinton, the king of funk – “maggot brain.” Memento mori and carpe diem: nothing like a visit to the Body Farm to make you appreciate the swiftness and sweetness of life. Take your own virtual visit to the Body Farm here.
I first walked through the Body Farm’s weathered wooden gate in 2000, as I was researching a television documentary about the facility’s scientific research and its contributions to solving crimes. Three acres of hillside covered with oak trees, maples, and dogwoods, the Body Farm is tucked behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. For the past 30 years, forensic anthropology professors and graduate students have been putting donated bodies on the ground – and in the ground, and in water, and in the trunks and backseats of cars, &c., &c. – and studying what happens: how long it takes, in these crime-like settings, for bodies to turn to skeletons. In winter, nothing much happens (think of a slab of pork ribs in a refrigerator); in the muggy heat of an East Tennessee summer, though, bacteria and bugs can devour the soft tissue in just 10 days or so.
The Body Farm serves several purposes. First, the data from the decomp experiments helps forensic scientists give police accurate time-since-death estimates whenever a decaying body is found at a death scene. Second, the bones from the donated bodies go into a skeletal collection – the largest collection of modern, known skeletons in the U.S., maybe in the world. That skeletal collection (which now includes more than a thousand skeletons) is a valuable teaching tool, and the detailed measurements from the bones are entered in the Forensic Data Bank and used by ForDisc, a computer program that can determine the sex, race, and stature of an unknown crime victim – a John Doe or Jane Doe – even if only a few bones of the victim are found. Third, the Body Farm is a unique training facility for law-enforcement agencies and other groups, such as the FBI’s Evidence Recovery Teams.
During the television documentary project that prompted my first visit to the Body Farm – when I wrote and produced two one-hour shows for National Geographic – I became friends with Bill Bass. So when Bass asked if I’d be interested in writing a book with him about his career, I thought, Sure – sounds fascinating! And it was. I enjoyed channeling Bass, and the book – Death’s Acre – got good reviews in the U.S. and the United Kingdom; it’s been translated and published in around 15 countries so far.
Although Death’s Acre was nonfiction, it got me thinking about fiction. Many of the “heroes” in crime novels are dark, tortured souls – people you wouldn’t even want to chat with at a cocktail party, much less accompany down the dark alleys of the human soul. But Bass – a guy who’d spent years up to his elbows in death and dismemberment – struck me as one of the sunniest, cheeriest folks I’d ever met. So I asked Bass if he’d be willing to let me pitch a novel inspired by him and the Body Farm. He agreed, but added skeptically, “I’m not sure anybody will be interested in reading it.” An editor at William Morrow contracted for three novels, and so – with Bass providing the forensic expertise and me providing the stories – “Jefferson Bass” and the Body Farm novels were born.
Luckily, Bass’s skepticism about the novels proved wrong: Five of the six already in print have been New York Times bestsellers, though we’ve yet to crack the top ten. I’m hoping that will change with novel #7, because I LOVE this book. The U.S. edition is titled The Inquisitor’s Key; the U.K. title is The Bones of Avignon. By either title, the book draws on remarkable subject matter, weaving together a shocking present-day murder with a sinister medieval mystery – all of it unfolding against one of the most astonishing backdrops of history, art and architecture I’ve ever seen: Avignon, France, a walled medieval gem of a city that’s dominated by the Palace of the Popes, the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe.
The Bones of Avignon comes out in Britain on April 26; The Inquisitor’s Key in the U.S. on May 8. Between now and then, this blog will give behind-the-scenes glimpses of medieval and modern Avignon; the inquisitor who became a pope; the medieval mystic who inspired one of today’s biggest self-help gurus; the labyrinthine Palace of the Popes; the haunting and controversial Shroud of Turin; the quest to use genetic engineering to trigger the Apocalypse; and other book-related sneak peeks and inside scoops.