08th May2012

Interview with Jefferson Bass

by Lloyd Paige

New York Times bestselling Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass a.k.a. Jefferson Bass, have continued to serve up tantalizing feasts of forensic detail and intrigue with the Body Farm series. Their latest offering, The Inquisitor’s Key, maintains all the usual tension of their previous books and then some. I caught up with Jon Jefferson to ask him a few questions for Today’s Paige.


1. Hi Jon, you’ve got a lot of media experience in journalism and documentary film making, when did you first meet Dr. Bill Bass and what inspired you to venture into the world of fiction writing?

A dozen years ago, I was developing a television documentary about the Body Farm. I’d called up the founder – Dr. Bass – and explained what I’d like to do: a piece that focused more on the scientific research than on the sensationalism of the place. Dr. Bass was agreeable, and fairly early in my research, he and I met for lunch at a Knoxville barbecue restaurant, Calhoun’s, to talk about forensic anthropology and murder cases.

Midway through lunch, he began describing the case of Letha Rutherford, an 18-year-old girl from Lexington, Kentucky, who went missing one day. Months later, her decaying body was found hidden in a trash pile in a rural area. Her death was declared a homicide, but the medical examiner couldn’t determine the cause of death.

Letha’s mother remained determined to find out what had happened to her daughter. Eventually she learned of Dr. Bass and his forensic prowess, and she persuaded him to examine her daughter’s remains. The body was exhumed, and Dr. Bass and a graduate student cleaned and examined the bones. On one of the girl’s first ribs, he told me, they found a cut mark. “Let me teach you something about stab wounds,” Bass said, and with that he snatched my plate, grabbed a steak knife, and plunged it into my half-slab of smoked ribs. Heads swiveled in our direction, then—as our fellow diners recognized Bass, a local celebrity—they smiled and returned to their conversations.

That lunchtime demonstration taught me a little bit about cut marks, and a whole lot about Bass: a guy who, despite being up to his elbows in death and dismemberment, loved his work, and loved sharing his knowledge. “This is gonna be fun,” I thought, and I was right.

After the television documentaries – I ended up making two Body Farm docs for National Geographic – Dr. Bass asked if I’d help him write a career memoir. When that book – Death’s Acre – was finished, I realized it might be fun to fictionalize him, and create a series of crime novels around a protagonist like him.

2. What can your readers expect from The Inquisitor’s Key?

The newest and seventh novel—The Inquisitor’s Key—is the ultimate game of “what if”: What if an ace forensic anthropologist were given the chance to examine the bones of the most famous victim—the most innocent victim—in all of human history?

The novel has dual narratives – a 13th-century back story and a present-day murder. I think of it as a tapestry – woven from medieval spun gold and 21st century ballistic nylon. There’s history, art, suspense, and – of course – high-tech forensic science.

Read it, and join us for the adventure!

3. How long does it normally take you to write a book, from the initial concept, to completion?

About a year and a half … which is too long, since HarperCollins wants a new one every 12 months!

4. You’ve been known to integrate real people into your books. Is this a bit of fun or is it integral to the overall narrative?

It’s both! In The Inquisitor’s Key, for instance, we wanted to have a forensic facial reconstruction on the ancient skull that’s unearthed in the Palace of the Popes. I’m friends with a couple of good forensic artists, and one of them – Joe Mullins, who does great work at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – good-naturedly agreed to make a cameo appearance in the novel, under his real name, doing what he does in real life (but in our fictional case).

5. How much does Bill’s real-life areas of expertise add for the people reading the Jefferson Bass books?

One of the things people love most about the books is knowing that the forensic detail in them is based on the lifelong research and experience of one of the world’s foremost forensic anthropologists. So that adds hugely to people’s enjoyment.

6. When conducting your book tours and meeting your fans, what has been the most memorable moments?

There was the book-tour moment when a recently released prisoner – a guy who’d done 30 years for murder, and whom we wrote about in a nonfiction book – showed up at a Nashville bookstore. I was afraid he’d come to take us out, but in fact, he came to ask if I’d help him write a memoir!

7. Based on what you’ve read and experienced, what ingredients would you say are needed for a bestselling story?

Likable, interesting characters; thorough research; a good sense of pacing (frequent cliffhangers!), and snappy dialogue.

Note: ‘The Inquisitor’s Key’ is titled, ‘The Bones of Avignon’ in the UK.

The Inquisitor’s Key Book Trailer

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