The Edgar Awards Revisited: Bones by Jan Burke (Best Novel, 2000)
By John ValeriNovember 22, 2019
Fresh off Y2K, it was Jan Burke's Bones that would take home the Edgar Award for Best Novel. John Valeri digs deep into this serial killer thriller.
Jan Burke wrote what would become the first of ten crime novels featuring journalist Irene Kelly in the evening hours after work. That manuscript, Goodnight, Irene (1993), sold to Simon & Schuster without the benefit of an agent or solicitation—and readers took note when then-President Bill Clinton mentioned it during his first White House interview after taking office. It was an unlikely start to an illustrious career that reached new heights with the publication of 1999’s Bones (aka Irene Kelly #7), which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Burke, a nationally recognized advocate for the improvement of forensic science, would subsequently win Agatha, Macavity, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Choice Awards for her short fiction.
As Bones opens, newspaper reporter Irene Kelly finds herself among a group of law enforcement officials, forensic scientists, and other experts who have entered the desolate Sierra Nevada mountains in search of Julia Sayre’s remains. The wife and mother of two went missing without a trace four years earlier—and her alleged assailant, sadistic serial killer Nick Parrish, has offered to lead authorities to her burial site; it’s an act of leverage to avoid the death penalty for a separate crime. Irene’s (begrudging) invitation to join the party is the result of her dogged pursuit of resolution, extended more for the sake of optics than goodwill. Her own involvement stems from an ongoing relationship with the victim’s goth daughter, Gillian, who, despite having wished her mom dead in their last encounter, has become the very conscience of the case.
This recovery mission, in addition to providing the initial narrative thrust, serves two distinct purposes: to explore the physical and psychological isolation of the characters, who are largely dependent on one another despite inherent animosity and mistrust, and to showcase the delicate procedural aspects of locating and recovering human remains without compromising their evidentiary value. The latter is enhanced by the employment of a cadaver dog, Bingle, who can recognize the scent of decomposition. The expedition appears successful when a grave is uncovered, its contents consistent with Julia Sayre’s body type and trauma. But when Parrish—who has been making overtures toward Irene—offers to lead the party to a second body, the consequences of acquiescence prove lethal.
To divulge the details about this plot twist would risk spoiling the reading experience, but what can’t go said is that Parrish escapes custody and begins a cunning cat-and-mouse game with Irene, Bingle, and the other survivor(s) along the treacherous terrain. Irene is ultimately rescued by her husband, homicide detective Frank Harriman, and brought home to Las Piernas, where she is expected to file copy and continue covering the case for the News Express. But Irene is suffering from survivor’s guilt, if not post-traumatic stress disorder, and soon begins seeing Parrish in everyday people and everyday places. These sightings take on greater urgency when the fugitive does resurface, taunting Irene with threatening phone calls, obscene mail, and gruesome deliveries to her home and vehicle.
Meanwhile, a mishap at the paper jeopardizes her employment and necessitates Irene’s participation in therapy, though she continues to collaborate with her husband and colleagues on the investigation while working an abbreviated schedule. She comes to believe that Parrish must have had an accomplice; the logistics of his escape coupled with current happenings—which include break-ins, missing people, a poisoning, and more murders—seem to bear this theory out. As tempted as she may be to lie low, Irene believes Gillian and the rest of the Sayre family deserve closure; she also refuses to show cowardice when antagonized. A face-to-face confrontation, then, is inevitable. But will Irene be confronting one foe or two?
The tale’s telling alternates between Irene’s first-person narration, which fosters a sense of closeness with the reader, and a more distant third-person narration for Parrish himself, whose character is illuminated in brief but recurrent segments. (Other, more periphery characters are also presented in third-person.) This delineates the sharp contrast between Irene, who is unfailingly compassionate and morally sound, and Parrish, whose grandiosity and sociopathic tendencies are all-consuming. Additional relationship dynamics—including those between husband and wife as well as fellow survivors (both human and canine)—add emotional depth while challenging our notions of strength and vulnerability in the wake of tragedy.
Regardless of the passage of years, the story itself holds up remarkably well—so long as readers make some allowances. For instance, cell phones and GPS technology were still rare commodities rather than omnipresent in 1999, and helicopters didn’t face competition from gadgetry such as drones. Further, print newspapers and journalists remained vital; after all, the Internet was still in its infancy, and blogging and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram had yet to influence the 24/7 news cycle. And while time has undoubtedly improved technique, the core tenets of criminal investigation, law enforcement, and cognitive therapy remain largely the same. Also, thematic elements such as good vs. evil, nature vs. nurture, and forgiveness of others and self remain evergreen.
Overall, Bones is on par with the very best of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. While the forensics both fascinate and frighten, it’s the complexities of the characters themselves that sustain suspense. Burke has revisited her protagonist sparingly in recent years (2005’s Bloodlines, 2006’s Kidnapped, and 2011’s Disturbance) and did confirm that there was another entry in the works via Facebook in 2015, though it seems that book has been delayed indefinitely due to familial circumstances. Fortunately, readers have a rich body of work to become (re)acquainted with until something new emerges fully fleshed…
Notes from the 2000 Edgar Awards:
- Burke’s fellow nominees included Peter Robinson (In a Dry Season), Robert Crais (L.A. Requiem), Rennie Airth (River of Darkness), and Stephen Greenleaf (Strawberry Sunday).
- The great Mary Higgins Clark was the Grand Master.
- “Heroes” by Anne Perry won Best Short Story. The other nominees were James W. Hall (“Crack”), Laurie R. King (“Paleta Man”), Stuart M. Kaminsky (“Snow”), and Jeffery Deaver (“Triangle”).
- Best First Novel went to The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison. He edged out Big Trouble by Dave Barry, Certifiably Insane by Arthur W. Bahr, God is a Bullet by Boston Teran, and Inner City Blues by Paula L. Woods.
- Guy Ritchie took home Best Motion Picture Screenplay for Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, defeating four other films: Cookie’s Fortune, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Titus, and Run, Lola, Run.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Adam Wagner checks back in to review The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale, the 2001 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.