Kathy Reichs: Déjà Dead

Originally published 1997, German: Tote lügen nicht (2000)

Having occasionally caught, and enjoyed, episodes of “Bones” on TV, I was happy to come across “Déjà Dead”, the first novel of the Tempe Brennan seris, at a flea market the other day.

It was a brilliant read, and I´m definitely going to read more from this series.

The Tempe Brennan encountered in this book as the first person narrator is considerably different from the Tempe Brennan of “Bones” – according to Wikipedia, the TV version has more in common with the author, Kathy Reichs, than with her namesake. So this Tempe is a forensic anthropologist in her late 30s, living alone after a divorce some years ago, her daughter at college, far away. Tempe is also a former alcoholic.

Whereas in the TV series, Tempe is working in Washington, D.C., at least the first few novels in the series are set in Montreal, Quebec, Canada which does add a unique atmosphere to the setting. Tempe is set apart, and to some degree isolated, by her position as an American working in a foreign country, and while she is not the only woman at her institute, she is the only woman working with several male detectives in this particular case and has a hard time convincing them (especially one) to take her theory of a serial killer on the loose seriously.

When human remains are found on the grounds of an abandoned monastery, Tempe is called in to quickly confirm whether they are from an old grave, laid open by the elements, as everyone hopes, or a case for the police. All too quickly, it turns out they are indeed from a murder victim, brutally mutilated and dismembered.

Something about the find reminds Tempe of a former, unsolved case and she starts looking at that again. Soon after, more dead bodies turn up, all mutilated and dismembered, all of them female. Tempe is convinced that a serial killer is on the loose, but has a hard time convincing the policemen working on the case of her theory.

At the same time, her best friend, a fellow anthropologist who is doing a field study in the red light district about the subculture of prostitutes, is giving Tempe increasingly reason to worry – she acts strangely and unusually and at one point, confesses that in the course of her work, she has attracted the attention of a stalker.

Again and again, the notorious real life case of Jack the Ripper peeks out beneath the lines, starting with the combination of the motifs of a serial killer, mutilated victims, prostitution. The descriptions of the mutilations have some parallels to those committed on the real life victims of the Ripper, most obviously those of the woman murdered in her own home to those of Mary Jane Kelly – the Ripper victim murdered in her home. Did I mention that one of the suspects goes by the alias of “St Jacques”?

Talking about the suspects – there are many fictional treatments of the Ripper case; some are good reads, some are not. Each of them offers its own solution to the case, and sadly, so far I haven´t encountered one that might be even close to probability. Most of them either have the Ripper turn out to be a completely fictitious character, not based on anyone associated with the real life case (e.g. Michael Dibdin´s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story) or they pick a fictionalised version of the more sensationalist theories, having the Queen´s physician, a member of the Royal family, or a conspiracy of freemasons be behind the murders. Which is really only exciting the first time you read about it. By the n-th novelisation, graphic novel, movie, TV miniseries presenting this theory… yawn.

In a way, “Déjà Dead” can be considered another fictionalized treatment of the Ripper case, and while it is far removed from the real case in terms of temporal, geographical and thus cultural setting, in her line-up of suspects and characters Kathy Reichs does acknowledge some of the well-established Ripper theories that are generally considered more likely (…well, at least in comparison to the Royal Conspiracy) today. There is a teacher who behaves oddly – an obvious nod to Montague John Druitt – an even a madman who has exhibited violent behavior in the past and has at times been committed to an asylum, a wave at the David Cohen theory.

The David Cohen theory is, in my opinion, one of the more likely identifications of the Ripper, which makes it worthwhile elaborating on it. It originates from the 1894 Macnaghten memoranda,  which mention three major suspects, among them “a Polish Jew & resident in Whitechapel. This man became insane owing to many years indulgence in solitary vices. He had a great hatred of women, especially of the prostitute class, & had strong homicidal tendencies; he was removed to a lunatic asylum about March 1889. There were many circs connected with this man which made him a strong ‘suspect'”;  from information about the killer (and the police’s knowledge about his identity), revealed by Sir Robert Anderson (Assistant Commissioner CID at Scotland Yard) for the first time in an article in 1895, and later in his own book The Lighter Side of My Official Life (1910): “One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type; that he was living in the immediate vicinity of the scenes of the murders; […] And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews […] I am almost tempted to disclose the identity of the murderer and of the pressman who wrote the letter above referred to. But no public benefit would result from such a course, and the traditions of my old department would suffer. I will merely add that the only person who had ever had a good view of the murderer unhesitatingly identified the suspect the instant he was confronted with him; but he refused to give evidence against him.” and, finally, from margin annotations in a copy of Anderson’s memoirs, mentioned above, beloning to the retired ex-Superintendent Donald S. Swanson. The annotations, in Swanson’s own hand-writing, are written at the bottom of the passage about the witness who refused to give evidence against the suspect: “because the suspect was also a Polish Jew and also because his evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind. […] And after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place in London. […] Continuing from page 138, after the suspect had been identified at the Seaside Home where he had been sent by us with difficulty in order to subject him to identification, and he knew he was identified. On suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel he was watched by the police (City CID) by day & night. In a very short time the suspect with his hands tied behind his backs, he was sent to Stephney Workhouse and then to Colney Hatch and died shortly afterwards – Kosminski was the suspect – DSS

(Abdridged quotation from: http://www.casebook.org/suspects/davidcohen.html)

Unfortunately, there is still no “final evidence” that would solidify this theory as “the one” – there are good cases to be made for several other theories, which lack “final evidence” as well. So, after more than 110 years, we can still only be certain of one thing about the Ripper: We do not know who he was.

Returning to Kathy Reich´s novel: It would be going one step too far to assume that by identifying the killer in her novel, the author has also stated an opinion as to which suspect she considers the most likely to have been Jack the Ripper; but still, it is a relief not to see the usual conspiracy theories rehashed for the umpteenth time in this context.

Most importantly: The novel is not based on the Ripper case so strongly that you can´t enjoy it if you are not familiar with the historical case, or consider the work unimaginative if you are. All the parallels and nods mentioned are merely an added bonus for Ripperologists in a book that is a good crime novel in its own right.

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