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Flesh and Bone: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass. William Morrow, 2007, 368 pages, $24.95


Flesh and Bone is a roller-coaster ride into the world of forensic anthropology, its twists and turns marked by drama and pathos, humor and grief, families and friends and enemies.


Publishers Weekly: At the start of the entertaining second Body Farm novel from the pseudonymous Bass, Dr. Bill Brockton ties a dead man dressed in drag to a tree at the Body Farm (a facility he heads outside Knoxville, Tennessee, devoted to researching postmortem decay), in an effort to replicate a recent murder. Fans of the bestselling first book in the series, Carved in Bone, and readers with a penchant for the gross and grisly will take to Dr. Bill, a hero with a big heart who isn't afraid to tackle complicated issues while solving mildly engrossing mysteries.


Jefferson Bass is the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, founded the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility -- the Body Farm -- a quarter-century ago. Jefferson is a veteran journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. His writings have been published in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and Popular Science and broadcast on National Public Radio.


Jon Jefferson had stopped by Bill Bass's home in Knoxville to take my phone call before they headed off to read from and discuss their new book at a local bookstore. Each part of the writing team was on a cordless phone in a different part of Dr. Bass's home. I began by asking Dr. Bass about his work at the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility. "I first learned about the Body Farm in Mary Roach's book, Stiff . Who else has written about your work?"

"The first major publication that talked about the work was Patricia Cornwell's book called, The Body Farm. Before she was a writer, she worked for the Virginia medical examiner's office, and I'd known her for years.

"After her book came out, people started calling the university wanting to know the number for the Body Farm. There's no use to call out there, of course, because everybody's dead.

"Then, Jon comes along and does two one-hour documentaries on us for the National Geographic channel, which have been very popular. It's been mentioned in many scientific and popular books as well."

"Was the idea of having this research site yours, originally?"

"I taught for 11 years for the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and I identified skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies there, but don't ever remember getting a maggot-covered body. I came here to the University of Tennessee June 1 of 1971 -- almost 36 years ago now -- to take over a three-person department that was an undergraduate program only.

"I knew the medical examiner here and he asked me if I'd serve as a forensic anthropologist to the medical examiner's staff. He notified the 95 medical examiners in Tennessee that they had a forensic anthropologist to identify bones and bodies. It isn't long before bodies started coming in. Half of the first ten bodies that came in were maggot-covered.

"The police don't ask you 'Who is that?' they ask you, 'How long have they been there?' I didn't know anything about maggots, so I looked in the literature, but there really wasn't much in there. So, I thought, 'If I'm going to be talking to police about the length of time since death, I better learn something about this.' In the fall of 1971 I went to the Dean and said, 'Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.'

"It all started with a sow barn where they used to raise pigs. I still have that, although we don't use it now."

"Did you have trouble convincing the University of Tennessee that this was a good idea?"

"No, sir, not at all. The Dean just picked up the university phone book, found the person on the University Agriculture Campus that handled land, and told him what I wanted. It was nine years later that business was picking up and we moved all the bodies from the sow barn to the couple-of-acres facility we have now in back of the University of Tennessee Hospital."

"In the novel you write about run-ins with creationists. Have you actually had run-ins with people concerning your work?"

From the other phone, Jon Jefferson responds, "We thought this scientific debate was settled decades ago, right here in Tennessee at the Scopes trial. But, this same issue keeps circling around again. It isn't driven by science; it's driven by beliefs that aren't based on science. People kind of twist and distort things to fit their belief system. The conflict in the book over creationism, or Intelligent Design, doesn't reflect an actual incident, it's more an attempt to weigh in on that issue. We try in the book to tell a good story and to entertain readers, but we'd like to educate people a little bit in a relatively painless way."

"Jon, when did you first meet Dr. Bass?"

"About seven years ago, I was reading an article in the Saturday newspaper about a training that a group of FBI agents had come to Knoxville for. They were digging up bodies from a simulated mass grave. There had actually been a case where a couple of DEA agents had been murdered in Mexico and they used that same scenario to train these agents on how to excavate bodies and how to interpret the evidence within the grave. As I read that article I was amazed that there was a facility right here in Knoxville where law enforcement agents can get such realistic training.

"I was doing television documentaries at that time -- a lot of shows for A&E and the History Channel, but I'd been a science writer in a previous career, and I thought it would make such an interesting documentary to talk about the research that was done out there and how it helped law enforcement.

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