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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.

"I called Bill up out of the blue and we ended up working together on the two National Geographic documentaries and just really hit it off well. We've been finding ways to keep working together ever since."

"Was the first book a nonfiction book about the Body Farm?"

"Really, more than that, it was about Dr. Bass's decades-long career in forensic anthropology. Also about a lot of interesting murder cases that he's worked on over the years. Particularly cases in which forensic anthropology and the research done out at the Body Farm were crucial to helping solve those crimes."

"What made you two decide to pursue novels?"

"Well, when I retired," Dr. Bass offers, "my students asked when I was going to write a popular book. I'd written a lot of academic literature -- a lot being about 218 articles and books and things like that -- but I'm not a good popular writer. I thought about it for a while, and then I started looking around. I looked at six or seven people who are writers. Some really wanted to do it, but those were the ones I really didn't want to do it with. One was a French reporter, but his English wasn't any good, and I don't have any French at all, so I thought that wouldn't get me anywhere. And so I talked to Jon about it.

"We signed a contract with Harper Collins to do three books. Then, four months ago, they came back and asked if we wanted to add two more to the original contract, so we have expanded to do five in the series."

"How do you decide, Dr. Bass, who does what?"

"Jon comes up with the stories, and I do the science. For example, in Carved in Bone , Jon had a story about a body in a cave in a fictional county in Tennessee. I said, 'Okay, Jon, is it a wet cave or a dry cave?' Because that will make a difference in how the body decays. If you're in a dry cave, the body will mummify. If you're in a wet cave, the fatty tissue in the body will go through a process of change that ends up with a waxy-like substance known as adipocere."

"Do you talk about the social issues that are introduced in the book, or does Jon get to choose those?"

"In Flesh and Bone there is this chapter where Dr. Brockton does a lecture on Dumb Design to counter this notion of Intelligent Design, pointing out the ways in which the human body, as it is, doesn't work as well as it could.

"I wanted to point out that evolution carries some baggage with just the term. The human body is one of the best examples of evolution that you can look at. All of us in the class are humans, so I just take the human body. We start at the skull and work our way down, pointing out things like the fact that the head is too large for the birth canal, or, the fact that in the evolutionary process, we are loosing our teeth. Our ancestors, if you go back far enough, had 44 teeth; we're now down to 32, and we really need to be down to 28. I ask how many students have had impacted third molars. Two-thirds of the class will raise their hand because they've already been to the orthodontist and had that third molar extracted. And, so, I'm using their own bodies to show the evolutionary process that we've gone through."

Mr. Jefferson adds, "Now, the other big social issue in this book is pedophiles preying on young children online. That actually is an issue near and dear to the heart of the real life Art Bohanan. He is a character in the book, but he's also a real live person. We basically transplanted the real-life Art and his credentials and his passions into the fiction. So, the seams between the fiction and the nonfiction are fuzzy in some spots.

"The real life Art did set up Tennessee's Crimes Against Children Taskforce. Years before television series were trying to catch predators online, Art was in these Internet chat rooms posing as young girls and catching predators. That's an issue that's important to him; therefore, it's important to us."

I share with the authors that I learned a tremendous amount about forensics while reading their work.

Dr. Bass is pleased to hear it. "In this second book, we're teaching about skin slippage. In Tennessee, between the fourth and the eighth day, the epidermal layer of the skin will begin to slip off the body. Your hands do what the police call 'de-gloving.' The whole epidermal layer of the hand, with the finger prints, comes loose and falls off the body like a glove. When you pick up that body you can't identify the individual because the skin has fallen off. Many police departments don't know this, and the best means of identifying the victim is often left at the scene where the body decayed."

"Did you come up with the idea of softening it with fabric softener, Dr. Bass?"

"Art Bohanan did. He and I have done at least five or six of these cases. You go out and pick this thing up and it feels like a little bit of leather instead of a leaf. It doesn't crackle like a leaf does. You bring it in. You put it in warm water overnight, and you put a little fabric softener in with it. The next morning you come in and you put on a rubber glove and you put that guy's skin over your hand and you can print a set of fingerprints."

Mr. Jefferson chuckles and adds, "We're hoping for a commercial endorsement from Downey Fabric Softener."

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