Mary Manhein has the personality of a caring grandmother, but the retired forensic anthropologist is nothing short of a rock star who hypnotizes crowds with tales of bodies, bones and puts on faces on people deprived of basic life and identity.
The former Zachary resident and author addressed a gathering of Zachary’s five book clubs on May 4 and shared how her famous cases and solving murders helped launch a career as a mystery writer.
Manhein, retired director of LSU’s Forensic Anthropology and Computational Enhancement (FACES) Laboratory, is the author of nonfiction books “The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist” and “Trail of Bones: More Cases from the Files of a Forensic Anthropologist.”
His detective novel, “Floating Souls: The Canal Murders”, is set in New Orleans, as is his latest detective novel, “Murder in the Cities of the Dead”. The main character is – without stretching it – a forensic anthropologist investigating a murder and navigating a romance with the local coroner.
The protagonist’s life’s work is not the only sample of reality in the book. Brutus, the Great Dane in the mystery, is based on the dog Manhein had when she lived in Zachary.
“I loved that dog, but he was known to get in trouble,” she said before the crowd burst into laughter. “I had to tie him up, but he would go to the neighbor’s on Sundays and steal the wet bluejeans off the clothesline at the back of the house. I had to wash them, wet them and look for the car across the street. He was so bad.
The mysteries of Manhein have a following among young and old readers. “I think kids from six to 100 read these books because they’re fun mysteries,” she said. “They don’t have anything horrible about them and so I think, more than likely, they would like that.”
A grandmother seeking a recommendation for a teenager was told not to overlook a youngster’s interest in the true stories of Manhein’s career. “He might even like non-fiction because kids like non-fiction,” Manhein said. “And again, there’s nothing scary about them. They just tell the truth.
The truth of his work with the FACES Lab has earned him international acclaim. Over nearly four decades, Manhein has helped authorities identify the remains of hundreds of people. In “Bone Remains,” she offers details about several cases, but she told book club members she was still surprised at how her life and work turned out. “I never thought I’d do something like this if not from rural northern Louisiana/southern Arkansas,” she said. “I always wanted to go to university, but I couldn’t afford it. I started out as a freshman at LSU around age 30. So I just took over.
Manhein’s famous cases have often been sad events, but she’s certain her work has brought justice and closure. Those cases included helping link evidence to convicted serial killer Derrick Todd Lee and being part of the team sent to identify remains after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
The grief is still evident in Manhein’s voice as she talks about Baby Doe, a young child whose body and head were found in different places. Baby Doe had decomposed considerably, but Manhein’s team was able to create a three-dimensional clay image that was recognized by a close relative.
DNA evidence was used to identify the child and bring his killers to justice. “Unfortunately, it’s not bringing this child back,” Manhein said. “She was a precious little child who was so happy with this carer. So this stuff breaks your heart, but I was up there again in Kansas for the reburial. So it was great to be able to do that.