Authors enjoy connecting the bones

Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 11:45pm
By Chris Scott,

It is a place very few people have ever visited and one that most people wouldn't want to go. Its proper name — the Forensic Anthropology Center — is virtually unknown by the public. But called by its nickname, it is one of Tennessee's most famous places.

The Body Farm, a two-acre plot of land in Knoxville, was founded by University of Tennessee anthropologist Bill Bass over a quarter century ago and is renowned as the hub of some of the most important forensic science ever conducted. By studying human decay as it happens in the heat of summer or the cold of winter, Body Farm scientists help solve real crimes and put real killers in prison.

Forensic science is not, however, the only field to which Bass has contributed. Since 2003, he and writer Jon Jefferson have collaborated on two non-fiction books about Bass' work, as well as five novels featuring Bass' alter-ego, Bill Brockton. The novels, written by the two men under the pseudonym Jefferson Bass, feature murder mysteries solved by Brockton and his associates using the real findings of the often gruesome Body Farm research.

The fifth Body Farm novel, The Bone Thief [William Morrow, $24.99], has just been released. Bass and Jefferson will appear at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Saturday, March 24 at 7 p.m.

Q: Dr. Bass, after four novels featuring the fictional Bill Brockton, do you find yourself having to point out to people that you and Brockton are not the same person?

Bass: In the first fictional book, the one called Carved in Bone, Dr. Brockton goes to a cockfight, and he chews snuff and things like that. And people who know me called and said, "I know that isn't you because you don't do that." So there are differences. I mean, Dr. Brockton is a character very much like me but does things that I wouldn't do.

Jefferson: One obvious difference is that Dr. Brockton is single, and Dr. Bass is happily married. And as a character he is free to have romantic adventures that way.


Q: Do you ever have trouble keeping the two separate when you're writing?

Jefferson: In this latest book, The Bone Thief, there was one place in the manuscript, when I was writing along, that I actually wrote Dr. Bass instead of Dr. Brockton. So mostly it's not hard to keep the fictional Dr. Brockton separate from the real Dr. Bass, but occasionally it gets a little blurry in the wee small hours when I have been writing a long time.


Q: How did the two of you meet and decide that writing mysteries would be a good idea?

Bass: Students had asked me for years when I was going to write a popular book. Well, I found out that Jon was a writer and was very knowledgeable about science, and I approached him, and we talked about it for three or four months. We finally decided to do a non-fiction book. The first one we did was called Death's Acre, a history of the Body Farm.

Jefferson: One of the things that appealed to me about fictionalizing Dr. Bass into a crime novel hero is that he’s up to his elbows in death and dismemberment, but he’s got this sunny disposition, and that really helps make it bearable. So many heroes in crime fiction are very tortured souls that you wouldn’t necessarily want to be in the same room with, much less walk down dark alleys with.


Q: How do you divide the writing duties?

Bass: On the fictional books, Jon comes up with the story, and I do the science. And the forensic anthropology is based on cases that I've done in the past. The first one, Carved in Bone, we had a woman in a cave, and I said, "OK Jon, is it a dry cave or a wet cave?" Jon chose a wet cave. In a dry cave, the body will mummify. If you're in a wet cave, the soft tissue, the fat in the body, will turn into a soapy substance known as adipocere.

I've done five or six of these cases. When we [found one body], he was in such good condition you could look at him and tell exactly who he was. Every whisker was in place, and he was literally a cake of soap.


Q: In The Bone Thief, you focus on the growing field of tissue and bone donation. Is there really a black market in bone and tissue?

Bass: Absolutely. I have done three court cases dealing with bodies that have been, let’s say mutilated, or changed, or parts of them have been taken off and sold before the individual was cremated.


Q: Mr. Jefferson, the books contain very detailed descriptions of autopsies, decay, dismemberment. Was it difficult for you to get used to the sights and smells of that kind of work?

Jefferson: It really wasn’t. I was surprised. The fascination of it all trumped any discomfort I had. Sure, I was out there in late summer, and the smell was really strong, and some of the things I saw, the insect activity, and so on, were pretty gory. But it was just such an opportunity to get to learn amazing things that I didn’t have the time or the energy to be bothered by the goriness of it.

To read a longer version of this interview — and additional coverage of local authors and events — please visit Humanities Tennessee's online journal,