From the backwoods of the American South to the corridors of papal power…

Jon Jefferson, the writer behind the bestselling “Body Farm” novels by Jefferson Bass, the latest of which has just hit bookstores and e-readers in the U.K. and U.S.

Nothing shakes up the routine and brings in fresh blood (so to speak!) like a change of scene. The Bones of Avignon (U.S. title: The Inquisitor’s Key) ranges far afield from prior novels in the bestselling Body Farm series – not just geographically, but also thematically, structurally, and even chronologically. Unlike the series’ six prior books, which are set in the Body Farm’s home territory of Tennessee, this latest crime thriller is set in history-rich Avignon, France, the home of the Popes for most of the 14th century. Also unlike the prior books, this one features dual narratives: a modern-day murder and a medieval mystery, set at the height of Avignon’s splendour and decadence.

The two plots are inked by a skeleton that might just be that of Jesus of Nazareth. The book plays the ultimate game of forensic What If? What if a skeleton freshly unearthed in the Palace of the Popes appeared to be that of Jesus – how would a modern forensic anthropologist confirm or refute that possibility? To complicate the game, what if that skeleton bore a striking resemblance to the figure on the famous Shroud of Turin? Finally, what might an Apocalypse-obsessed zealot do to get his hands on such momentous bones? The plot is fiction, but the book’s modern-day villain bears a disturbing resemblance to real-life leaders of a growing movement among U.S. evangelical Christians: “Dominionism,” a movement whose quest to wrest control of American government, education, business, and media has gained surprisingly strong influence with six recent U.S. presidential hopefuls.

The book’s cast of medieval characters is drawn from larger-than-life characters from Avignon’s actual past: Jacques Fournier, a heretic-obsessed Inquisitor, who interrogates and burns his way all the way up the Catholic Church’s career ladder, becoming Pope Benedict Xii; Petrarch, the lovesick sonneteer and humanist, who spent decades pining for the unattainable woman of his dreams; Laura de Noves, Petrarch’s heartbreaker and muse; Simone Martini, a brilliant Italian painter drawn to Avignon by the promise of lucrative commissions at the opulent papal court – and hired by Petrarch to paint a portrait of the lovely Laura (a portrait whose existence and excellence is immortalized in two of Petrarch’s poems, although the portrait itself is lost to history).

As I was researching and writing The Bones of Avignon, I felt at times like a time-traveller, with dual citizenship in both the 14th century and the 21st. (I also sometimes feel myself morphing into the inspiration for our series’ main character, Dr. Bill Brockton – a fictional doppelganger for my scientific collaborator, Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who founded the University of Tennessee’s renowned Body Farm. I met Bass a dozen years ago, while writing and producing a pair of documentary films about the Body Farm for National Geographic. Working with him – first on the Nat Geo documentaries, then on a memoir – gave me a deep appreciation for his forensic brilliance, his honourable nature, and his unique voice. Here was a guy who was up to his elbows in death, decay, and dismemberment, yet his disposition seemed remarkably sunny, and his delight in solving forensic puzzles was boundless. Our fictionalized version of him isn’t as dark and brooding as most crime-fiction protagonists, but readers seem to taken a shine to Dr. Brockton and his cheery, pun-loving nature to heart.

I spend a distressingly small percentage of my time reading about the exploits of other fictional sleuths and criminals. I’m a huge admirer of Cormac McCarthy, who writes literary fiction rather than crime fiction (though his characters tend to shed buckets of blood!); sometimes McCarthy’s language is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. Occasionally I binge on Robert B. Parker, whose Spenser mysteries are as addictive as popcorn – and nearly as swiftly devoured. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are terrific. And James Lee Burke’s combination of crime, Cajun ambience, and lush, lyrical description transforms each Dave Robicheaux novel into a heaping helping of rich, writerly gumbo. Too many books, not enough time!

Crime writers walk a delicate tightrope when it comes to violence. In the Body Farm novels, I try to treat violence in much the same way I treat it in real life: I abhor it, but I try to be brave enough to face it frankly it when that seems the right, brave thing to do. Same thing with sex. There’s not a lot of sex in the Body Farm novels (no “50 Shades of Forensics” for us, though perhaps we’d be billionaires if we gave that a go). But whether sexuality works depends on the writer, the story, and the readers. If the writer’s not comfortable writing steamy scenes, the sex will seem awkward. If the sexuality’s not integral to the plot or characters, it will be distracting. And if the audience isn’t open to it – if, say, an audience of “cosy” readers stumbles across a graphic sex scene – they’re likely to be discomfited by it. The Bones of Avignon does include one slightly steamy scene, as well as another scene that – despite the fact that it’s set 700 years ago – scorches the page, according to one of my most trusted readers.

The real sizzle in the Body Farm books, though, comes from the high-tech sleuthing, especially forensic anthropology. The Bones of Avignon features carbon-14 dating, forensic facial reconstruction, and facial superimposition, all of them drawn from real-life casework. But tucked amid the book’s bodies and bones – both medieval and modern – is a warning about the dangers of mixing religion with politics: dangers that loom as large in the 21st century as they did in the inquisitorial heyday of medieval Avignon.

What awaits Dr. Brockton upon his return from Avignon? I don’t know yet – and the suspense is killing me!

The Bones of Avignon is published by Quercus (the U.K.’s 2011 Publisher of the Year!). In the U.S., the book is published by William Morrow under the title The Inquisitor’s Key.

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