The Bone Yard: A Body Farm Novel
". . . make readers feel part of a criminal investigation team . . ."
Jefferson Bass is really two people—Dr. Bill Bass, a legendary forensic anthropologist, and Jon Jefferson, a veteran journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. The Bone Yard is exactly what a reader might expect from such a writing team. The book flows like a good documentary and is infused with enough forensic science in the snappy dialog to make readers feel part of a criminal investigation team.
This is not Dr. Bass and Mr. Jefferson’s first collaboration. Fans of forensic thrillers may have read some of their five previous novels, all with “bone” in the title: The Bone Thief, Bones of Betrayal, The Devil’s Bones, Flesh and Bone, and Carved in Bone, most of them bestsellers.
As expected, bones are the critical clues in this thriller, based on the actual discovery of a clandestine graveyard of young homicide victims at a Florida boy’s reform school. The institution operated under different names from the early 1900s until it was finally shut down in 2008 by Florida governor Charlie Christ. A two-part investigative series on the school by the St. Petersburg Times won the paper a Pulitzer Prize.
The story of how the fictional “Bone Yard” came to be “uncovered” is told in first-person by Dr. Bill Brockton, a forensic anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Brockton character is based on Dr. Bass, who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Bass’s outdoor laboratory is an acre where he buries donated corpses to study and teach decomposition of the human body as part of crime solving.
Neighbors complain about the smell, duly noted in the fictional story as well. But Dr. Bass’s work and the popularity of the Bone series of novels and three nonfiction books, has made Knoxville, Tennessee, a mecca of the forensic world.
In The Bone Yard, Brockton, or “Dr. B” as his students and close colleagues call him, has a scientist’s mind and a do-gooder’s heart. A student in his advanced forensics class, Angie St. Claire, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) crime investigator, gets a call saying her sister has committed suicide. She convinces Brockton to help her prove her sister was murdered.
Brockton can’t resist a real life investigation, as opposed to the more mundane activities back at the campus Bone Farm. Once he gets to Tallahassee to help St. Claire, the plot thickens along with the Florida back-country humidity.
A skull bearing the marks of blunt trauma is brought to FDLE’s lab in Tallahassee. Brockton has never met a skull he could ignore. He determines the sex, race, and age of the cranium, found in the vicinity of a notorious reform school for boys, destroyed in a fire decades ago in which eight boys and a guard died. Brockton and St. Claire are drawn to the site of the school like flies to a corpse.
The story really starts buzzing when a second skull turns up. Brockton, St. Claire, and her cigar-chomping boss Vickery soon find themselves hip-deep in digging up a dirty past that some are determined will be left buried.
In the “Author’s Note: Fact and Fiction,” in the back of the book, the writers emphasize that although The Bone Yard is a work of fiction, it is “deeply rooted in the soil of grim realities.” The realities that Brockton, Angie, and Vickery have to confront are grim, indeed. And though their dialog crackles with dark humor and sarcastic wit, the central theme of The Bone Yard is an indictment of the juvenile justice system.
“If this book can do anything to raise awareness or vigilance—can do anything to help keep vulnerable boys from being abused by the very people and institutions entrusted with their care,” writes Jefferson Bass, “we’ll have done good work. ‘Light a candle but continue to curse the darkness,’ urges an idealistic character in this story. Amen and pass the matches.”