(Starnewsonline, Ben Steelman, Jan. 22)
As mystery aficionados and regulars at the Cape Fear Crime Festival know, “Jefferson Bass” is a pseudonym for two people.
One is Bill Bass, the legendary forensic anthropologist and creator of the outdoor lab known as “The Body Farm,” made famous by Patricia Cornwell.
The other is Jon Jefferson, a freelance writer for The New York Times and other publications, who collaborated with Bass on his memoirs “Death’s Acre” and “Beyond the Body Farm.” (Jefferson attended the 2007 Crime Festival here in Wilmington.)
The two, as Jefferson Bass, have continued their partnership through a series of “Body Farm” mystery novels, beginning with “Carved in Bone” in 2006.
Their sleuth is Bill Brockton, an anthropology professor at the Univeristy of Tennessee (as Bass was) and head of its Anthropology Research Facility (the Body Farm’s official name). Think Gil Grissom with a Southern accent.
So far, Dr. Bill’s cases have taken him through the hills and hollows of East Tennessee. For the duo’s fourth novel, “Bones of Betrayal,” however, his work takes him to Oak Ridge – and to a case that’s ice-cold and hot at the same time.
It’s an exceptionally chilly February, and Oak Ridge police call on Dr. Bill and ace grad assistant Miranda Lovelady to help extract a body frozen into the ice of a disused swimming pool at a rundown motel.
The corpse turns out to be the remains of an elderly scientist, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, in the glory days of of World War II, when the entire town of Oak Ridge was built, almost entirely from scratch, in a matter of months to serve as the assembly point for America’s first atomic bombs.
It turns out the old man was murdered by radiation poisoning – by a tiny but lethal isotope he almost certainly swallowed. Then things get curiouser: Probing the scientist’s house, officers find a cache of old film, probably dating from the 1940s, hidden in the refrigerator. Once developed (it takes some effort), the photo images show a young GI lying near an East Tennessee barn – obviously dead, with a bullet hole in his forehead.
Brockton finds himself trying to solve two homicides, one fresh, one nearly 60 years old. Now, if he can only find the soldier’s body …
Neither Jefferson nor Bass are high stylists in the P.D. James mode, but they know how to spin a yarn. “Body of Betrayal” has more than its share of twists, turns and red herrings – especially when possible wartime espionage comes into play – leading briskly to an almost plausible conclusion.
In large part, however, the novel offers a lightly sugared history lesson on wartime Oak Ridge – one of the more intriguing “now-it-can-be-told” yarns from America’s past.
For years, the whole town’s very existence was a closely guarded secret. Massive factory complexes and labs were once known (and, around Oak Ridge, still are) solely by their coordinates on a classified map: Y-12, K-25 or X-10. (X-10 would later become Oak Ridge National Laboratory.) Supposedly, one of the reasons the project manager, Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, picked the site was that Tennessee’s mountain people had a solid reputation for keeping their mouths shut.
Thousands of men and hundreds of women were recruited to work on secret equipment, twisting knobs and watching dials with no idea of what they were doing. A gold-rush atmosphere prevailed and, given the gender ratio, the ladies had the best choices on Date Night.
Some of this history lies undigested in rather large chunks; Dr. Bill might break into a two-page disquisition on the relative national casualty figures in the Second World War. If you’re not a History Channel buff, some of this might seem a bit dry.
On the other hand, the frequent flashbacks give Jefferson and Bass a chance to play with some colorful, real characters; Gen. Groves, Edward Teller and Robert Oppenheimer flit through briefly. Plus, with a few spies slipped in, wartime Oak Ridge proves nearly as atmospheric a crime scene as Sam Spade’s San Francisco or Philip Marlowe’s L.A.