Review: 'The Bone Yard' by Jefferson Bass is based on disturbing realities from
By Ben Montgomery, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Sunday, March 20, 2011
A graveyard much like
this real one near the
boys reformatory in
prominently in The
Bone Yard. In the book,
bodies are exhumed to
find a cause of death.
In real life, the 31
anonymous graves sit
untouched, some of the
deaths rumored to be
We were parked outside the one-armed man's house, photographer Edmund Fountain and I. We'd been waiting an
hour or so for some sign of movement, some signal that he was inside, so we could approach him and ask if he'd
answer our questions.
More than 300 men were claiming that the man, Troy Tidwell, had abused them — beat them bloody with a thick
leather strap — while they were in state custody decades ago at the Florida School for Boys, on the edge of the
Panhandle town of Marianna. He wasn't answering his phone or door, so we staked out his house and waited.
That's when I noticed in the rearview mirror a man walking toward us, carrying a long metal rod.
I shouldn't repeat what I said in the car that day, but for a tense dozen seconds we braced for a violent confrontation.
About the time the man reached our rear bumper, he turned, stepped onto a lawn and used the metal rod to lift the
heavy cover off a water meter.
We breathed, then felt silly for letting our imaginations run wild.
I thought about that incident, and several others Edmund and I experienced while reporting a series of stories about
the reform school in 2009, as I read the latest Body Farm novel from Jefferson Bass, the name used by the writing
team of Jon Jefferson and Bill Bass: The Bone Yard. The book is full of that kind of creepy small-town tension we
The novel is based on real events and real characters at the Florida School for Boys, which has had half a dozen
names since it opened in 1900, most recently the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The authors rename it yet again
(the North Florida Boys' Reformatory) and fictionalize the town (Marianna is McNary), but there are plenty of facts
sprinkled throughout the book. (There really is a greasy spoon called the Waffle Iron in Marianna.) That makes for a
particularly chilling read if you've paid any attention to the flesh-and-blood story of abuses at the school.
The Bone Yard begins with Dr. Bill Brockton, founder of the human-decomposition research facility at the University
of Tennessee, agreeing to help a forensic analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determine
whether her sister's death was murder or suicide, which serves as a sort of subnarrative throughout the book.
Brockton's short consulting trip to Florida is disrupted when the FDLE is alerted that a hound has unearthed a boy's
skull on land near the reform school. In the novel, the school was closed in the 1960s after a fire killed several boys,
so the property has been vacant for years.
When another skull is unearthed by the same dog in the same area, and when it's determined that both boys were
homicide victims, Brockton agrees to lend his expertise to the FDLE. He and a team of investigators eventually find
the mother lode of human remains, a hidden graveyard with all sorts of boys' skeletons. The authors' technical,
detailed descriptions of the forensic techniques Brockton and others employ as they exhume the bodies and
determine cause of death is interesting reading, even if you're not a fan of CSI.
The story is spiced when the investigators run into opposition during their quest to determine how the boys died. The
local snuff-spitting sheriff has secrets. The former chief of the school knows more than he's saying. Someone has
killed the dog that found the skull, and its owner. And a villain thought dead, the abusive one-armed guard at the
school called Cockroach, appears out of nowhere to . . . well, we're not exactly sure why he comes back.
In a dramatic scene, Cockroach, a nickname for Seth Cochran, says the locals thought he was dead, and he let them
think that. They even buried an empty coffin. He moved to west Texas after the fire to start a new life.
"Stayed there for 40 years, under the radar," he tells Brockton, "till you came along and started pulling skeletons out
of the closet."
This leaves us wondering why he returned if no one knew he was alive, but it isn't a big distraction because the story
is frothing at this point, nearing its bloody and frightening climax.
The convergence of truth and fiction in the book is fascinating and also disheartening. It left me wishing Bass' story
were true, that some caring and capable forensic anthropologist had exhumed bodies from the very real cemetery,
called Boot Hill, where 31 very real crosses mark very real graves. Made me wish that the very real one-armed guard
would resurface, or at least answer his door.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 310-6066. The St. Petersburg Times'
series on the Florida School for Boys can be found at tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/marianna.
The Bone Yard: A Body Farm Novel
By Jefferson Bass
William Morrow, 336 pages, $24.99
Meet the author
Inkwood Books and the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading present Jon Jefferson,
co-author of The Bone Yard, in a conversation with Times staff writer Ben Montgomery, at
7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.
[EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times (2009)]
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jefferson Bass is the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson.
Together, they wrote Death's Acre, a nonfiction account of the Body Farm,
before embarking on a forensic fiction writing career as Jefferson Bass.
Their debut novel, Carved in Bone, reached no. 25 on The New York Times
Best Seller list and was followed by a series of bestselling crime novels,
as well as a second nonfiction title (Beyond the Body Farm). Their sixth
and newest Body Farm novel is The Bone Yard.
Bios of Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson
Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass is a legend in forensic circles. In
1980 Dr. Bass created the world's first laboratory devoted to human
decomposition: the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm." Dr. Bass has
written or coauthored more than 200 scientific publications, many of them
based either on the research facility's work or on murders and other
mysteries he's helped to prosecute or solve. During half a century in the
classroom, Dr. Bass has taught tens of thousands of students, including
many of the foremost forensic anthropologists practicing in the United
States today. He's been featured on numerous network television news
programs, as well as in documentaries for National Geographic and the BBC.
CBS was not exaggerating when it called Dr. Bass "America 's top forensic
Jon Jefferson is a veteran journalist, science writer, and documentary
filmmaker. His journalism credits include work for The New York Times,
National Public Radio, Newsweek, and USA Today. Jefferson learned the art
of combining scientific material with compelling human stories during a
decade as a science writer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In the 1990s
he began writing and producing documentaries for the History Channel and
the Arts and Entertainment network, covering topics ranging from Vatican
treasures to World War II fighter planes. An aviation buff, Jefferson owns
and flies an experimental airplane. As a volunteer with a search-and-rescue
team, Jefferson trained his Australian shepherd, Chief, to work as a