Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist who also writes novels, learned about the mysterious religion Santeria from a pathologist in the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office about 20 years ago. The possibilities germinated in her mind until she decided to incorporate Santeria into the plot of her 11th novel, Devil Bones.
Reichs' series protagonist is Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist who helps police and prosecutors solve crimes by reading skeletal remains for clues. (The same Brennan is the main character on the fictional Fox TV series Bones, based on Reichs' fiction.)
Devil Bones is set not in Florida, where there are many followers of Santeria, but in Reichs' hometown of Charlotte, N.C., adding a layer to the story's mystery.
Santeria blends African religious practices with Catholicism. It emerged as Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves; traditional African deities were disguised as Catholic saints, so that the slavemasters might not catch on.
"Forensic anthropologists tend to get the most severe cases, the ones that can't be resolved by the pathologist through a normal autopsy. Our cases are the putrefied, burned, mummified, mutilated, dismembered and skeletal," says Reichs, speaking for Brennan.
In Devil Bones, two murders in Charlotte that seem unrelated might involve Santeria or a similar religious practice. Reichs is masterful at weaving into her plot how ignorance about and fear of fringe religions arouse public superstition that can lead to panic, as well as lousy law enforcement results.
As in Reichs' earlier novels, the plotting is sound, the suspense is intense but broken just often enough by dark humor, and the forensic education is graduate level. Reichs says she is not retiring Brennan any time soon, which is good news for readers of mystery fiction.
Steve Weinberg is author of "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."