Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Jefferson Bass-The Breaking Point

 DEBORAH CROMBIE:  We are a gory bunch, we mystery writers and mystery readers. We want
to know what happens to that body we have done away with, and what's more, we want to know in intimate detail! So it's my great pleasure to introduce Jon Jefferson, the writing half of the collaboration that, with forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass, make up Jefferson Bass, author of the Body Farm novels. (I had to contain the "whoo hoo!!" here!) It was Dr. Bass, a professor at the University of Tennessee, who founded the Body Farm, and who--but here, I'll let Jon tell you...

The Body Farm: Its Life and Deaths, in Fact and Fiction

By Jon Jefferson

We modern-day Americans have a schizophrenic relationship with our mortality. On the one hand, we shun it, eschew it, and spend vast sums to fend it off—to fend off even the slight, sagging-skin portents of its approach. We ingest, inject, and insert a multitude of Fountain-of-Youth materials into our living bodies, and we marinade our dearly departed to create the illusion that they’re not dead, merely sleeping.

The Body Farm gate
And yet; and yet. We are absolutely, utterly mesmerized by death, perhaps in exact proportion to our scrupulous avoidance of it. We brake to gawk at ghastly highway accidents. We binge-watch old episodes of “Autopsy” and “Dr. G: Medical Examiner” on Netflix and Youtube. And some of us—the hardcore, twisted, lucky ones among us—spend years scrutinizing corpses and skeletons at the “Body Farm,” the macabre research facility at the University of Tennessee where forensic scientists document the buggy, gooey choreography whereby corpses shuffle shuffle shuffle, shuffle off their mortal coil.

Patricia Cornwell first put the Body Farm on the pop-culture map back in 1994, with a brief 
Jon and Dr. Bass examine one of the Body Farm's residents
but memorable scene in a novel that gave the facility title billing. My own initiation to the Body Farm came six years later, during my stint as a documentary writer/producer in Knoxville. Casting about for an interesting subject for a science documentary, I called Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who had created the Body Farm. Bass—a surprisingly genial guy, for someone up to his elbows in death and dismemberment—welcomed me and my National Geographic documentary crew, and for eight weeks we were Body Farm regulars. (If you’re curious, BTW, an updated version of the Nat Geo documentary, “Secrets of the Body Farm,” is posted on Youtube, but beware—it’s not for the faint of heart!).

I’d expected my relationship with the Body Farm to be shortlived—a one-fright stand, so to speak, from which I’d emerge with a few harrowing war stories—but life, or rather Death, had other plans for me. Bass asked if I’d be interested in helping him write a memoir; turns out I was, so I did, and we called it “Death’s Acre.” Then I asked if he’d be willing to let me transformogrify him into a crime-fiction hero named Dr. Bill Brockton; turns out he was game, too, and thus were born the Jefferson Bass “Body Farm Novels,” written by me, drawing on Bass’s voluminous case files and world-renowned expertise.

Jon and Dr. Bass at the Body Farm gate. Are they keeping things in--or out?
Nine novels and two nonfiction books later, Death still isn’t finished with me, nor with Bass’s doppelganger, Dr. Bill Brockton. Over the past nine novels, Brockton has done more than simply solve murders. He’s also butted heads with anti-evolution creationists (in novel #2, “Flesh and Bone”), pondered the relationship between science and faith (in novel #7, “The Inquisitor’s Key”), confronted evil incarnate (a serial killer named Satterfield, in novel #8, “Cut to the Bone”), and endured tribulations worthy of the biblical character Job (in the series’ newest installment, “The Breaking Point”).

And in what I consider to be a particularly wondrous achievement for a fictional character,
Bill Bass and Jon stab some pork ribs at a favorite Tennessee restaurant
Dr. Brockton has also helped shine light on the real-world abuses at a notorious Florida “reform” school—the Dozier School for Boys—which the state closed a few months after our book’s publication. What’s more, Brockton and I later helped catalyze a massive forensic investigation into deaths at the Dozier School—an investigation whose discovery of clandestine, unaccounted-for graves on the school’s grounds bears an uncanny similarity to Dr. Brockton’s unsettling finds in novel #7, “The Bone Yard.”

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction … and sometimes it’s a dead ringer for it.

In any case, today, two decades after Patricia Cornwell immortalized it, the Body Farm is alive and well. In fact, it’s flourishing. And in fiction, too.

Got a question or comment about the Body Farm, in fact, or in fiction? Post away; I'll answer/respond as best I can ... and whoever posts my favorite question/comment will get a free copy of "The Breaking Point"! 

DEBS: This is such fun. I'm going to start the ball rolling with two questions:

First, Jon, can you tell us a little about The Breaking Point? (No spoilers, of course!)  

And second, is the murder in The Breaking Point based on one of Dr. Bass's actual cases? It's an absolutely fascinating scenario.

Oh, and third, if I can sneak in one last question, isn't the news about the escaping Mexican cartel crime lord a bizarre coincidence?

Chime in everyone, and get your name in the hat for a copy of The Breaking Point. (I already have mine:-))

You can follow Jefferson Bass on Facebook to learn more about fact imitating fiction, and about Dr. Bill Brockton's adventures..


  1. Is the Body Farm used solely for research or might training programs, such as for cadaver dogs or crime scene technicians and law enforcement officers take place at the Body Farm?

  2. Deborah, we are a gory bunch (including readers). Jon, my question is how would a person go about donating their body to the Body Farm?

  3. Just popping in to say how much I enjoyed seeing Jon Jefferson here this morning. I'm a big Jefferson Bass fan, and this was a fun read.

  4. Where do the bodies come from? I was just telling my 10-year old grandson about it, and couldn't remember how the bodies ended up in the facility. Aren't they unidentified indigents?

    What a tremendous asset to law enforcement, and to science, to have that information tabulated over the years.

  5. Oh, gee, another series that MUST be added to my TBR pile! I have found, to my surprise, that I love reading about the forensic stuff.(But I don't stop or slow down to look at accidents; they hit too close to home.)

  6. Fascinating stuff. I attended Katherine Ramsland's class on the Body Farm at the Writers Police Academy a few years ago. How do I get a fellowship to go study there for a week? Are there classes? I'm not a bit squeamish.

    And now I must read the series! Thanks so much for sharing the genesis and the pictures. So cool you both were able to collaborate over such a long time.

  7. Thanks for the flurry of questions & comments! First, I'll respond to Deborah's three-parter.

    The Breaking Point has two plots. First is the forensic plot, in which Dr. Bill Brockton is called by the FBI to the scene of a fiery jet crash, to identify the fragmented, incinerated remains of the pilot--whom they THINK is Richard Janus, whom they were about to arrest on drug-trafficking charges. The plot quickly thickens, of course, and the identification (along with Brockton's ability) is called into question. Then there's the personal plot, in which Brockton is dealt a terrible blow. The cumulative effect - and the reason for the title - is that the professional and personal travails add up to Job-like tribulations that push Brockton to the brink.

    The forensic case isn't based on any single case from the real Dr. Bass's files; rather, I've cherry-picked details from several plane-crash and ID cases, and combined them, along with some purely invented ones.

    As for the recent, real-life escape of Mexican drug kingpin "El Chapo" Guzman, who figures in The Breaking Point: astonishing coincidence, or over-the-top publicity stunt, arranged by unscrupulous author? You decide! ;)

    - JJ

  8. It worries me, Kaye, that you call this a "fun read." ;) Ya know I love ya.

    I have not read this series, but I have to say that The Body Farm has always been interesting to me, ever since I first heard about it in the Cornwell book. There was just an episode of Rizzoli and Isles that took place at "a" body farm.

    Thanks for another enlightening post, JRW.

  9. Still have my copy of Bass--that's all we ever called it. "Do you have Bass?" Every bone class--physical anthropology, starts with Bass's book on the human skeleton. I drew every bone in the human body from that book. The Body Farm is an amazing accomplishment, but what I honor him most for is how he used both science and compassion to document the victims of political and social violence here and elsewhere in the world. Can't wait to read Jefferson Bass!

  10. Joan, the Body Farm does offer training programs for crime-scene techs from law enforcement agencies, and . The National Forensic Academy offers period trainings, and the FBI has an annual training for people on its Evidence Recovery Teams.

    Edith, alas, writers - with the lucky exception of yours truly and the occasional reporter - are generally kept outside the fence. Unless they're dead!

    Karen: Most bodies are donated (by the "owners" themselves, or by their next of kin), although a few are unclaimed bodies that Tennessee medical examiners send. (In the Body Farm's early days, those unclaimed bodies accounted for nearly all of the research subjects, but as the Body Farm has become better known, more and more people - like Mason! - have begun signing up as donors. Details about body donation are here:

  11. Kaye, FChurch, Deb, & Kristopher - Thanks for the interest & kind words! FChurch, I rely heavily on my Bass - the osteology handbook and the living, breathing Bass - when I'm describing bones & death scenes!

  12. It's too bad writers aren't allowed - I'd definitely visit.

    I remember that Patricia Cornwall book. It was good.

    Another series I must add to my (ever growing) list. The Breaking Point sounds fascinating and I'd love to read about Brockland's take on science and faith.

  13. Hi Jon! I'm going to have to read the book about the Dozier School case. That was my mother's maiden name, and I believe her family came originally from Tennessee. It would be very weird to find I was somehow related.

    As for the Body Farm, I'd think it would be a bit of overkill (excuse the pun) for training cadaver dogs... But this is all so interesting! I loved the forensic details in the murder scene/plane crash in The Breaking Point, and I'm going to watch the NatGeo special. I have such admiration for Dr. Bass's work, and I'm not squeamish. (I was a biology major in college, and took a post grad forensic pathology course--alas, minus the autopsy...)

  14. Love that description, "a one-fright stand."

    I'm wondering about the writing together--does he supply ideas and details and you write, Jon? or what?

    I've always wondered if I could write with someone--it's such an isolated job...

  15. Welcome, Jon! Usually I'd say this novel was too bloody for me, but since our Kristopher of Bolo Books has gotten me hooked on so many gory things that I never would have looked at twice before, I'll give it a read -- with the lights ON, thank-you-very-much.

    And Kaye, you crack me up with your "fun read."

  16. ANd it;s fascinating how you not only have to figure out the riveting forensic details that make each book unique--but also the social issue to deal with. Such a great way to allow readers to be drawn in, by fiction, to an important real-life topic .

    Jon, do you have an A-ha moment when you realize the perfect core of the book? Thanks so much for being here today!

  17. Jon - I'm thinking you could convince Dr. Bass to organize a course/visit for crime writers. Couldn't you? (Please??) It would sell out in the first hour.

  18. Okay, so the body farm is to research how the human body breaks down. Do you create different climates for comparison or introduce different insects? Or is it a study of how different body types break down in this part of Tennessee? Or seasonal studies? Details, please. (I am not a gruesome person or a looky-loo. I go out of my way to avoid seeing the aftermath of accidents!)

  19. Great questions, Pat D! Would love to know the answers, too.

  20. Diane Hale here. Fascinating topic, and a terrific view of how one decision can lead to a life- or career-changing path. Jon, I'm so glad you shared your experience and thoughts of how death is viewed by our changed culture that sees death as an enemy, rather than a normal progression of our existence. Thank you for being Deb's guest.

  21. Having been to the morgue here in Cincinnati, and gagging at the smell, even modified with ozone makers and gigantic vent fans, I cannot imagine wanting to go to the Body Farm. At least not without serious nasal protection.

    And now I'm wondering how old a body has to be before it stops being "fragrant".

  22. Again, a portmanteau response - sorry I've been off the grid for most of the day! I'm traversing the east coast, upward to Maine (in DC overnight), so my access today is spotty.

    Edith, the ranks of people who want to visit the Body Farm (and/or talk to Bass) are legion ... and he's almost 87. So he pretty much gets to choose what he wants to do at this point!

    Pat: The main variable in rate of decay is cumulative temperature - measured in "degree days" (average temperature per day x number of days). A body goes to bone far faster in summer than in spring or fall, though it takes about the same number of degree-days in each season. The different climates are introduced by nature, over the course of different seasons - though, of course, the seasons/climate in Tennessee aren't identical to those in other places. There are now several body farms in other places/climates, including a big one at Texas State University, run by anthropologists who trained at Tennessee. So new data is being gathered at those sites. The succession of insects, too, is allowed to run its natural course while being observed and charted. In fact, the first major study at the Body Farm, beginning in 1981, documented what bugs feasted on the corpse smorgasbord, and when.

    Lucy, re. the writing process: I propose the plot, we discuss, and I ask a ton of forensic questions about the fictional crime scene, investigation, key clues, etc. Then I write a draft and run it past him for forensic fact-checking.

    Karen, the odor of death fades, but lingers as long as there's any soft tissue at all. The final step in cleaning bones before boxing them up for the skeletal collection is to simmer them in hot water, with a bit of Biz and Downy, and then scrub them clean. Until then, they're still stinky; after that, they're okay.

    Diane & Hank, thank you - it's a pleasure & a privilege to be here on JRW! Hank, I appreciate your comments on the "issue" component of the books - they're novels, and therefore "entertainment," as a prominent bookstore owner reminded me once, but if I can enlarge someone's world-view or sense or empathy or compassion or social justice in the course of providing entertainment, I feel like I've done a good thing.

  23. P.S. Hank, I don't know if I'd call it an "aha" moment - and I've certainly never thought of myself as realizing the "perfect core" of a book (maybe next time!?!). For me, it's more a matter of struggling with the story - and often doubting or even HATING the story - until I finally, finally round some sort of unseen corner and realize that I've begun to like the story after all. With the latest book, The Breaking Point, that turning point didn't come until the final section of the book, when Brockton pulls himself up by his battered bootstraps and gets back to work, determined to figure things out despite all the many reasons he has to just throw in the towel. I'm not, alas, a particularly analytical or planful writer; I often find myself baffled by, or at least surprised by (though sometimes, blessedly, delighted by), the direction the story ends up taking. E.L. Doctorow's analogy about novel-writing - "like driving a car at night" - feels deeply true to me, and it always strikes me as a minor a miracle to crawl out from behind the wheel and find that I have, in fact, made the whole journey and arrived at the end. :)

  24. You two guys are so cool, and I can't wait to check out the series!

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