Grave Secrets, by Kathy Reichs

>> Wednesday, December 14, 2005

As I wrote in my post about my first Kathy Reichs, Fatal Voyage, the book I wanted to read originally was this one, Grave Secrets.

They are "the disappeared," twenty-three massacre victims buried in a well in the Guatemalan village of Chupan Ya two decades ago. Leading a team of experts on a meticulous, heartbreaking dig, Tempe Brennan pieces together the violence of the past. But a fresh wave of terror begins when the horrific sounds of a fatal attack on two colleagues come in on a blood-chilling satellite call. Teaming up with Special Crimes Investigator Bartolomé Galiano and Montreal detective Andrew Ryan, Tempe quickly becomes enmeshed in the cases of four privileged young women who have vanished from Guatemala City -- and finds herself caught in deadly territory where power, money, greed, and science converge.
Not a perfect book, but I enjoyed this one very much. Actually, given that so much of my reading is romance novels, it feels a bit weird to use the word enjoyment to describe how I felt about Grave Secrets. I seem to relate that word to books that make me feel happy, books I close with a smile. Not in this case, but even though a lot of this book was truly harrowing to read, it was fascinating and well-built and had great characters, so enjoyment does seem to be the word for my feelings for it. A B+.

The book starts with our heroine, forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, working as a volunteer in Guatemala at a dig, trying to find and identify the remains of people killed in a massacre during that country's civil war. Right there, I started crying, probably because this all rings very close to home these days.

The main story isn't really about this, but about a more contemporary investigation, one into the disappearance of four young women from Guatemala City, but Guatemala's recent past is still very much part of the story, affecting the backdrop to a huge degree.

That backdrop was what I found most fascinating about Grave Secrets. As much as I was very intrigued by the actual case, it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting to me if it had been set somewhere more typical. It's quite clear to anyone who reads this that Reichs is describing something she's experienced first-hand. This is no generic Central American setting (jungle -check!, tinpot dictator - check!), this feels real. The people, the culture, the physical setting. What I found a bit annoying in Fatal Voyage, those too-detailed descriptions of obscure places, didn't bother me here.

I especially liked the procedural aspects of the plot, something I'm not usually particularly interested in. The thing is, when I read mysteries or romantic suspense books set in the US, it's like reading science fiction as far as I'm concerned. It's just so incredibly different to the way things are done at home... the procedures followed by cops and technicians, the judicial aspects, the technology, everything!

Reading about this particular investigation, though, gave me the feeling I was reading something that could happen right here. The problems were ones I recognized, even if they are slightly less grave here than in Guatemala (or, at least, the Guatemala described by Reichs) and the people and society felt very familiar.

On the character development front, I liked the triangle Reichs sets up, adding a very interesting Guatemalan detective to the still-in-development Tempe - Ryan relationship. I have to say, though, that I didn't appreciate the gimmicky, cliff-hanger ending in this area.

And speaking of the negatives, as with Fatal Voyage, I thought the book deflated somewhat in the resolution. In a mystery, especially one as complicated and with as many different threads going all over the place as this one, what the resolution needs to accomplish is to give the reader an "a-ha!" moment. I don't know if I can explain it. It's that moment when you realize everything makes sense, the moment that has you thinking back and realizing that all those little things you didn't pay much attention to were important and had a very clear meaning. It's what makes a mystery really satisfying, at least to me.

Here, the "a-ha!" feeling was extremely muted. To be fair, I'm not saying certain things didn't make sense, or that they were any plot holes that were left unexplained. I just mean that finding out what had happened didn't feel as satisfying as it might have. I guess part of it was that a lot of the tying up of seemingly unrelated threads depended too much on coincidence, especially the way the Chupan Ya massacre investigation and the septic tank case ended up being related. I don't know, all I can say is that the unknown piece of the puzzle which was revealed last, the one which should have made everything make sense, didn't fit as well as it might have.

Still, even with that, this is one of the better mysteries I've read lately.


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