The Ten Best Forensic Thrillers Ever?
Jon Jefferson is the “writer” half of the duo Jefferson Bass. The duo’s other half—the “forensic genius” half—is Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the University of Tennessee’s Body Farm. Their latest Body Farm novel, Without Mercy, is the bestselling series’ tenth installment.
True confession: I’m a rule-bender from way back, so not all of these are forensic novels. I color outside the genre lines myself, and I need a breather from maggots and skeletal trauma every now and then.
So, no, these aren’t the ten best forensic thrillers ever. But they are all mysteries, and damned good ones, my ten favorites du jour.
* The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: What do Doyle’s most beloved mystery and Scooby-Doo have in common? A villain fakes a supernatural creature—in this case, a demonically glowing hell hound—to scare the bejesus out of folks and throw meddlesome investigators off the scent. Long before Scotland Yard embraced fingerprinting, forensic chemistry, and document analysis, Doyle—and Holmes—championed crime-solving science.
* The Alienist by Caleb Carr: In 1896, a young Theodore Roosevelt—New York City’s police commissioner (in fact as well as in this fiction)—investigates a series of killings. Roosevelt taps a team of innovative investigators who harness modern methods, including fingerprints and an early version of behavioral profiling. It’s an engrossing blend of forensic factuality, crime fiction, and alternative history.
* A Stained White Radiance by James Lee Burke: Burke’s Dave Robicheaux mysteries are short on science and long on violence, but this early one is a masterful jambalaya of complex characters, corruption, complicity, and lyrical love notes to the Louisiana bayou. Nobody’s innocent, not even Robicheaux, a Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic. For an extra treat, listen to the audiobook: Will Patton’s read is as rich and satisfying as Cajun gumbo.
* Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass: Yes, I wrote this one; am I a narcissist? But I love it for the right reasons. Besides introducing the genial genius Bill Brockton, his feisty sidekick, Miranda, and the Body Farm, the book showcases forensics (including a laboratory scene I wept while writing) and local color galore (pot patches, ginseng, and a huge cockfighting arena, modeled after a real one I visited while researching the book). Last but not least, the book was good enough to convince the woman I had fallen in love with that I was smart enough to be worth marrying.
* Déjà Dead by Kathy Reichs: A female bone detective who’s smart and sexy; a dismembered body, meticulously sealed in plastic bags; a moody Montreal monastery: what’s not to like? Sometimes I imagine Reichs’s Tempe Brennan and Jefferson Bass’s Bill Brockton at a forensic conference, sneaking surreptitious glances across a crowded room, eyeing each other with unexpressed, unrequited longing.
* The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy: Inspired by the sensational real-life murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947 (her body was cut in two at the waist and luridly posed), Ellroy’s masterpiece is narrated by a hard-boiled LA cop, who also does a stint as a crime-lab tech. Blood smears and fingerprints play a role, but the real star of the book is the clipped, terse writing and the corruption and complicity that permeate the LAPD and, indeed, every character in this noir thriller.
* Promised Land by Robert B. Parker: I’m jumping the forensics fence again, but Parker’s protagonist—the hard-boiled, cuisine-cooking, poetry-spouting Spenser—is worth straying for. He’s Philip Marlow with a topspin of English lit, by way of Bon Appétit. And the supporting characters, psychologist Susan Silverman and the deadly-yet-ethical outlaw Hawk (debuting in Promised Land), are a mystery ménage made in heaven.
* The Drop by Michael Connelly: Connelly’s recurring protagonist, LA homicide detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, is one of the all-time greats, and The Drop is Bosch at his complex, cynical best, working a pair of challenging cases. Connelly’s a master of setting, character, and the forensic, procedural, and political machinery of murder cases.
* The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris: Harris’s Hannibal Lecter trilogy is a creepy tour de force, one in which forensic psychology and serial-killer profiling take center stage. Silence also features forensic entomology: a moth pupa, found in the throat of a victim, is an important clue. A gruesome bonus is that the serial killer helps Clarice Starling find—the creepy “Buffalo Bill,” who skins his victims—is inspired by real-life wacko Ed Gein (“quiet”; “kept to himself”; “loved his mother”), who also inspired Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates in the aptly named Psycho.
* The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell: Cornwell didn’t coin the nickname “Body Farm”—an FBI agent did—but she put it on the pop culture map. Cornwell’s medical-examiner heroine, Kay Scarpetta, visits the Farm with a crucial forensic question: Could the strange markings on the corpse of a murdered child have resulted from the body’s initial decay in another location—somewhere other than the lakeside where she was found?—and might those markings be impressions made by objects on which the body lay? The answer shaped Cornwell’s book; Cornwell’s book made an obscure research facility famous; that fame drew me and my TV documentary crew inside the gates for weeks, transforming my life and career.