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Death's Acre    by Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson order for
Death's Acre
by Bill Bass
Order:  USA  Can
Berkley, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Though its subtitle - 'Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab / The Body Farm / Where the Dead Do Tell Tales' - sounds like something that National Enquirer would publish, Death's Acre is a wonderfully entertaining and informative book by one of the pioneer American forensic scientists. Dr. Bill Bass is a physical anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee. Early in his career, Bass applied his expertise in human anatomy to develop a fascinating sideline, working with law enforcement. When confronted by a dead body, Bass can study the remains and tell how, why, when and where. As he says 'Flesh decays, bone endures.' The bones record ancient injuries and 'reveal them to anyone with eyes trained to see the rich visual record, to hear the faint whispers rising from the dead'.

Bass was relatively unknown (outside his profession and police circles) until his work was publicized by Patricia Cornwell in her thriller, The Body Farm. Officially called the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, the Body Farm was established so that Bass could learn more about what happens to the human body after death. Donated bodies were placed in a wooded area near the university campus, allowing students to study the decay process. Nowadays any forensics TV show worth its salt will periodically feature a bug expert who can determine the 'time since death' for a corpse. All of this is due to Bass's innovative early research. At present there is a waiting list of people who want their bodies donated to the Body Farm after their deaths.

Bass and his co-author Jon Jefferson tell a fascinating story of the scientist's life and the most interesting cases over his over forty year career. Bass comes across as brilliant, creative, and self-deprecating about his many contributions. He is also very witty, a nice relief given the gruesome subject matter. Describing a decayed human body stored in the broom closet of the university's anthropology department, Bass tells us that 'it was the janitor who finally snapped'. Fortunately he was soon afterwards assigned better storage facilities. Always innovative, Bass uses whatever resources are available, saying 'I'm sure the makers of Downy (fabric softener) would be pleased to know their product makes even mummified human skin soft and fragrant'.

Although somewhat graphic, the stories and forensic details are spellbinding, especially since the authors fill in the background on the crimes that resulted in the dead bodies. As Bass says, 'The bones don't always tell you the whole story, but when they do, the tale can be both horrifying and hypnotizing.' The book is not overly technical, but the authors do include a glossary of forensic and anatomical words and a skeletal diagram. I highly recommend Death's Acre to anyone who loves mysteries and wants to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes, and also to anyone interested in a truly fascinating individual. After reading about real life forensic work, I find that what we see on TV pales by comparison.

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