The Breaking Point by Jefferson Bass—a pseudonym for the writing team of journalist Jon Jefferson and anthropologist Bill Bass—is the ninth in a crime series featuring the Body Farm near the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where human bodies are allowed to decompose under a variety of natural conditions. Founded by Bass, the now-retired head of the UT anthropology department, the Body Farm has yielded important real-life forensic research and crime-solving tools since 1981. Jefferson Bass exploits these tools as the fictional Bill Brockton, modeled on Bass, unravels murders, suicides, and accidents in a compelling series of thrillers with unique technical verisimilitude.
In The Breaking Point, Brockton, well-known to national investigative agencies like the DEA and the NTSB, is brought in by the FBI to consult on an investigation into a twin-engine jet’s crash into a mountain east of San Diego. The plane’s lone occupant was presumed to be a celebrity humanitarian, an expert pilot. In digging systematically through the wreckage, Brockton finds the pilot’s charred teeth and confirms the FBI’s original theory: the crash was caused by pilot error or suicide.
Not everybody is convinced, however, and there are hints of intrigue and foul play. Back in his campus lab, Brockton looks more closely at the evidence and has to admit the recovered teeth bear marks that might suggest they were pulled. Could the pilot be alive somewhere minus his teeth? Was he murdered before somebody else piloting the plane bailed out and sent it on to crash into the mountain? In either case, Brockton’s credibility with the FBI is damaged, and the complexity of the problem defies any clear explanation. The case, Jefferson Bass writes, seems “to be turning Occam’s razor on its head; the more complex and bizarre the explanation, the closer it seemed to stumble toward some grotesque, distorted, funhouse-mirrored travesty of truth.”
Meanwhile, other disasters accumulate. A journalist accuses Brockton of using deceased veterans in his Body Farm research, and the resulting publicity and possible loss of state funding spurs a university investigation. Threats from an incarcerated psychopath rattle Brockton’s already stressed psyche. And a former student reports seeing Brockton’s wife meeting another man. “I felt myself being cudgeled,” Brockton laments. “Rhythmically, ceaselessly cudgeled.”
The novel is full of tension, mystery, danger, suspense, and all the elements that make for a page-turning read that also educates the reader in some of the finer points of forensic identification. Brockton is a capable and likeable sort—brave, determined, and resourceful under circumstances that no man should ever have to endure.
Ralph Bowden, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, has worked as an electrical engineer, history professor, home builder, alternative-energy consultant, and technical writer. A former resident of both Knoxville and Chattanooga, he lives in Cookeville.