Fatal Voyage was published in 2001 and is the fourth novel in the Temperance Brennan series. The main plot of the novel involves Brennan dealing with an airplane crash in Western North Carolina. Immediately, I could not help but be reminded of the incidents occurring on September 11, 2001. I believe this novel was published before those events, but in my paperback edition, the author added an afterword in which she briefly discusses the NYC incident at the World Trade Center. Reichs herself was a member of the recovery response team. In some sense, I felt “bad” for her because I am sure she was a little disturbed about having written about a plane crash earlier in the year. It must have been a bit unnerving. Fatal Voyage takes place in October.
In any case, the story starts off with Dr. Brennan entering the crash site where emergency teams are gathering among the refuse and damage. Rather quickly we meet a major character, the Sherriff Lucy Crowe. Normally, I do not really pay attention to descriptions of what the characters look like. I generally pay enough attention to get a vague image and then forget all the details. Crowe, however, was interesting enough that I found myself picturing her throughout the story. She’s described as being very tall. Crowe has frizzy, carrot red hair and eyes the color of Coke bottles (which Reichs will remind us of plenty of times throughout the rest of the novel.) Upon first meeting Crowe, Brennan estimates Crowe’s age at around forty years old.
It was somewhat difficult for me to figure out just where the crash site was. Crowe is the Sherriff of Swain County. But there’s a lot of talk in the novel about Bryson City. Basically, I just put the crash in some area of the Smokey Mountains that is more rural than anything. Having driven through most of Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, and NorthEastern South Carolina, I pictured these little-driven roads, small townships, and lush green forests that are way too muggy in the summertime and drafty in the wintertime.
After the multitude of official recovery/investigation teams arrive (each bearing their own three-letter acronym), Brennan begins her first day by assisting her colleagues in tagging, photographing, and packaging remains. After a long day, she is told by her boss to take a break. Instead of milling around the hectic command center, Brennan heads outdoors to the forest. It’s here that she happens upon the situation that entirely changes the storyline. In the underbrush, she is encircled by a small pack of coyotes (she mistakes them, at first, for wolves.) Fearing for her life, she also notices that the animals are protecting and trying to abscond with a human foot. Obviously, Brennan thinks this foot is connected to the plane crash. She makes several attempts to wrest the foot from the coyotes. At this point, who should show up but none other than Andrew Ryan – the detective she works with (and is sweet on) at her job in Canada. Ryan and Brennan rescue the foot and chase off the pack of coyotes.
I think the cover of the book (my purple edition, anyway) is supposed to be a picture of a skeletal foot representing the foot that Brennan found. However, I don’t know many people who have toes that are so even in their size. Heck, most of the people I know have third toes that are as long as their big toe.
From this point onward, the story changes, Brennan does not really deal with the plane crash. Instead, she ends up in a lot of hot water with her superiors over the mysterious foot and is booted from working with the crash site. She remains in the area, however, because she wants to clear her professional reputation. Also, she discovers that the foot is not actually from the crash, so she begins her investigation. The foot actually involves a whole series of killings that occurred since the 1940s. Most of Brennan’s troubles come from people in high places impeding her investigation because they will be implicated or guilty of whatever she is investigating. Andrew Ryan is there, we learn, because his partner Bertrand was on the plane that crashed. Bertrand was escorting a criminal to Canada for arrest/trial. The coincidence of all of this is a little bit hard to swallow – but it’s fiction and it’s fun, so I just read onward. Of course, there are plenty of red herrings that Reichs puts us through so that we are as lost as Brennan.
There are a lot of names in this novel. Names of people investigating, names of people on the plane, names of local persons who are being investigated. There are a lot of characters to keep track of. Reichs does a surprisingly good job of keeping everyone pretty clear and even, but sometimes it gets a little difficult if the reader isn’t paying attention. While there is “science” in the novel, I feel Dr. Brennan is less the forensic specialist and more the investigating detective. This is okay, because it works for the novel. But I do hope future novels do not turn Brennan into a detective and lose the coolness of her laboratory expertise. For most of the novel, the only people who are Brennan’s allies are her dog, Boyd, and Sherriff Crowe – who is about as unflappable a character as there ever was.
At one point Brennan goes to Charlotte. I found her descriptions of the city to be very keen. Obviously Reichs has spent much time there and is familiar with the difficulty with navigating the city. In chapter 23 Brennan describes the city streets, truer words were rarely spoken about Charlotte and its streets:
“Charlotte’s street names reflect its schizoid personality. On the one hand the street-naming approach was simple: They found a winner and stuck with it. The city has Queens Road, Queen’s Road West, and Queen’s Road East, Sharon Road, Sharon Lane, Sharon Amity, Sharon View, and Sharon Avenue. I’ve sat at the intersection of Rea Road and Rea Road, Park Road and Park Road.”
Reichs also deals with the local natives in the rural areas of North Carolina with precision and tact. Yes, there are some hillbilly religious folk. And there are some stubborn, insular folk. But there are also simple, well-meaning folk too. I think most of this comes across in Reichs’ writing. I think this is the first novel wherein Brennan spends the majority of it in North Carolina and not Canada. Overall, I think the book was probably difficult to write. It is a large novel with a wide-open plot. There’s lots of characters to hang on to and lots of plotlines to be careful with. I think Reichs succeeds with her story. The novel is creepy, tense, and amusing all at different points. It works. I don’t like reading about planes crashing, but I appreciate a good detective story. Especially one with two pets (yes, Birdie has his cameos!)