Adept in the language of corpses, forensic anthropologist Mary H. Manhein is both an academic researcher and, when called by desperate law enforcement officials in Louisiana and adjacent states to unravel mysteries of death, a teller of lost tales.

Simply put, she reads skeletons to discover the cause and probable timing of death. What does bullet wipe, the pathway taken by a projectile through a human head, reveal? How might the color of a bone provide an essential clue to the location of a murder? In The Bone Lady, Manhein artfully shares such secrets in a series of brief sketches. At her best, she recalls the engrossing details of a specific case, explains how its riddles were (or could not be) answered, and concludes with the human reverberations: a mother comforted by closure in a runaway daughter's death, a vicious murderer brought to justice days before he can kill a witness.

Whether reporting the stench, suffocating heat, or brutal sorties by biting insects in steamy bayous or smoldering sites of oil fires, Manhein is at once straightforward and appropriately droll. Her sharp ear for dialogue has recalled some very funny remarks from those puzzled or horrified by her line of work. In quite another key, she draws upon her childhood memories most movingly the death of an infant brother to ponder which combination of intellectual curiosity and psychological need drives her.

In a comparatively short book, she teaches us a great deal, often puncturing popular misconceptions. Most readers will find that they use the word skull improperly. Nor were above-ground tombs originally built in New Orleans because of the soggy ground, as the tour guides say. We learn how photosketches of missing children are aged to approximate the 15-year-old face of a child last photographed at age 5 and how the egg-laying cycles of the blowfly help investigators determine time of death of a decomposing corpse lying in a swamp. Wisely, Manhein does not philosophize about the possible meanings to be found in disintegrating mortal remains. She solves puzzles of event, not motive; of body, not spirit. This unaffected account, though not always sharply edited, is informative and amusing, leaving us to ponder for ourselves why violence or despair renders living humans into challenges for her forensic skills. ¦ Charles Flowers recently received a Washington Irving Award for his book A Science Odyssey.

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