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Onyx reviews: Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs

Every so often, bones that are attributed to the body of Jesus turn up in novels. In the 1970s, Canadian author Charles Templeton generated controversy by using this device in Act of God, partly because the author was a former preacher who had a public conversion to agnosticism. The existence of Jesus' bones, these novels argue, is sufficient to rock the faith of Christians worldwide. Their discovery could send modern civilization into collapse.

Controversy makes for good publicity, as Dan Brown discovered a few years ago. By inserting controversial premises concerning the nature of the Holy Grail into an otherwise unremarkable thriller, the author of The Da Vinci Code created a cottage industry of books that defend Christianity against his fictional assault.

Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist, isn't shameless enough to pretend she isn't treading on Dan Brown territory-her protagonist, Temperance (Tempe) Brennan herself mentions The Da Vinci Code. Cross Bones was inspired in part by the recent discovery of an ossuary that some antiquarians claim held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. Experts agree that the stone chest is first century, but are divided on the authenticity and age of the inscription.

Shortly after Tempe determines that the death of a shady Montreal antiquities dealer was murder, a stranger hands her a photograph of a skeleton, claiming that its subject is the reason behind Avram Ferris's death. One of Tempe's friends, Jake Drum, a bilblical archeologist, immediately associates the skeleton with the Masada excavation in Israel-the first of many astonishing leaps that this book will ask readers to make.

The site of a first century, years-long rebellion against the Romans, Masada is a source of Jewish pride, but Jake reveals that portions of the dig have never been published because of their controversial nature. Reichs' plot hinges on the postulate that associating Christian bodies with those of dead Jewish rebels is sufficient to drive someone to murder.

When a suspect in Ferris's murder flees to Israel, Tempe and her boyfriend, police detective Andrew Ryan, are handed the excuse they need for a trip to the Holy Land. Now in possession of the bones from the photograph, they find themselves the targets of any number of zealots who wish to keep their existence secret for reasons that might be described as tenuous at best.

Drum connects the Masada skeleton to a looted burial site in the Kidron Valley that may contain the remains of the Jesus family-his mother, his siblings, perhaps Mary Magdalene, and a shroud-wrapped set of remains that might be Jesus himself.

To set the story up and put Masada into context, Reichs dumps a lot of information on her readers. There are lengthy descriptions of skeletal reconstruction and the nature of nuclear and mitochrondrial DNA that make even some of the other characters' eyes glaze over. This type of detailed forensic information works in a visual medium (as on C.S.I.) but on the page it tends to overwhelm when doled out this way.

Tempe is an interesting enough character, a recovering alcoholic with grown children (often conveniently absent when they don't suit the plot) and a complex and complicated relationship with Detective Ryan. She's strong willed, but has the annoying habit common to some mystery novel protagonists of deliberately and repeatedly placing herself in harm's way without anything remotely resembling an exit strategy.

Reichs also has some stylistic habits that may irritate readers. Determined to end chapters with cliffhangers, she tries too hard to build in deferred revelations. Tempe reads a document and reveals through her narrative everything she learns until a pivotal piece of information appears, which she conceals with tempting hints as to its importance until the reader turns the page to begin the next chapter. Once or twice in a novel, a writer might get away with this, but after a while it seems overly manipulative.

Ultimately, the plot becomes so complex and convoluted, and relies so heavily on unconvincing motivation, that it takes Reichs/Tempe nearly a dozen pages to explain it to readers once the perpetrator has been revealed. Since Tempe must return for a ninth Reichs novel, modern civilization is not allowed to collapse under the weight of her controversial discoveries, so some valuable evidence is conveniently taken off the board, leaving the characters in her world to wonder about the truth.

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