Bones by Jan Burke

What did it win?

Edgar Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A serial killer stalks a newspaper reporter.

Was it really any good?

Only as an example of the state of today’s pulp, which is nothing to be happy about.

More than a book we have read many times before – though it is also that – Bones is a book we have seen many times before. The superhuman serial killer (this one’s name is Nicholas Parrish) has become one of the most common archetypes in today’s entertainment industry. Enough is enough!

Does anyone remember where these psychos first came from? I suppose their most notorious predecessor is Hannibal Lector. Even the cover of the paperback edition of Bones is meant to recall The Silence of the Lambs, with a picture of a moth superimposed over a pair of crossed bones. (It seems not to matter that the name of the “Moth” in the novel is purely metaphorical.) But Hannibal himself may have only been an upscale, intellectual version of the seemingly immortal slasher psychos of 80s cinema.

Whatever his pedigree, my main complaint about the use of a serial killer in mystery fiction is the fact that serial killers are without rational motivation. The reason they kill people is because they are crazy. When I read a mystery novel – or any crime fiction – the motivation for the crime is what interests me the most. It’s the main reason such an otherwise outdated school of writing as Naturalism still has the power it does. Getting inside a character is one of the things fiction has always done best, and it is a shame to see so many of today’s authors falling back on what have become all-too-familiar Hollywood caricatures.

The following is typical of the discussion we get of motivation in the book:

“David,” Andy said, “you’ve been around this type of guy before. Why do you think Parrish did that?”
“There could be any number of explanations,” David said, “but if you’re trying to make any real sense of it, well, that’s something for a forensic psychologist to tackle.”
“He’s insane,” Andy said.
“Not by the legal definition,” David said. “He was found competent to stand trial.”

Not only is this singularly unhelpful, it also shows a questionable understanding of the law. The “legal definition” of criminal insanity involves quite different considerations than the test of whether an accused is competent to stand trial. We might expect someone in the business to know better.

(While I’m on the topic of what motivates serial killers, I might point out the way Burke’s Nicholas Parrish is influenced by the media. Though his character is never presented in any depth, it does seem as though he is some kind of copy-cat, even signing books out of the library on “his brethren.” The reason this is interesting is because it seems to assume what most people who defend this kind of entertainment always deny: that the media has any influence on violent behaviour in society.)

Of course, when writing a mystery novel the absence of motivation becomes a big problem. How are we supposed to figure out whodunnit when there is no reason for it being done in the first place? Indeed, why even bother trying? I don’t want to say that classic detective fiction is the only way to go, but if the current crop of Edgar winners is any indication (see my review of Cimarron Rose for an earlier complaint) then it seems pretty clear that mystery has been supplanted as a genre by the “suspense thriller.”

But all of this is digression. Was the book itself any good?

It is an effective page-turner, though instantly forgettable. The real mystery, the identity of Parrish’s accomplice, should be pretty obvious by about halfway through (at least that’s when I had it figured it out, and I’m no super-sleuth). The feisty heroine is another stereotype (yes, we know a strong woman can take on these predators, we’ve seen Silence of the Lambs, we’ve seen Kiss the Girls), and as for Nicholas Parrish . . . well, what can we say about a guy who laughs “uproariously” when he calls the decapitated corpse of a woman he has packed in his freezer a “cold fish,” and then excuses himself for being a boy “trying to get a head!”

Great material.

Despite being so derivative, the book takes itself surprisingly seriously at times, especially with all of the references to von Eschenbach’s Parzifal that are never explained. And there are elements of the plot that remain unconvincing. The escape of Nicholas Parrish, instead of making him appear to be a master criminal (“some combination of Houdini and the Terminator”), struck me as being entirely the result of dumb luck. And the finale – a battle on the rooftop of a tall building while a helicopter circles overhead – is Hollywood pure and simple.

But then, I guess pretty much everything is now.


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