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The Sirens of Suspense




Jefferson Bass is the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, founded the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility -- the Body Farm -- a quarter-century ago. He is the author or coauthor of more than two hundred scientific publications, as well as a critically acclaimed memoir about his career, Death's Acre. Dr. Bass is also a dedicated teacher, honored as National Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Jefferson is a veteran journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. His writings have been published in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and Popular Science and broadcast on National Public Radio. The coauthor of Death's Acre, he is also the writer and producer of two highly rated National Geographic documentaries about the Body Farm.



item1 The Perils of Book Tour, item1

“The only thing worse that going on book tour is not going on book tour.”

– Allan Gurganus, quoted by Ann Patchett in her essay “My Life in Sales”

I’m reminded of that line now as I dash from bookstore to bookstore on this, my twelfth best-of-things/worst-of-things book tour. Over the past thirteen years, I’ve written ten crime novels and two true-crime books in collaboration with Dr. Bill Bass, the bone detective who created the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee.

I’ve been to hundreds of events by now, smiling and scrawling my name for friendly strangers who’ve shelled out twenty-five bucks for figments of my imagination and true stories from Bass’s case files. Most of the inscriptions I penned have faded, at least in my mind, and the venues and faces and journeys have blurred.

Most of them … with two vivid, hair-raising exceptions.

Exception #1: One morning several years ago, Bass and I set out by car from Lexington, where we’d had a signing the night before, to Indianapolis, where we were to sign at what our publicist described as a “great indie bookstore.” The publicist had also booked us for a noon TV talk show, to spread the word and gin up a crowd. Media coverage, all knew, was the key to success.

Bass was driving us in his Honda minivan, his preferred mode of travel, and it was somewhere around Cincinnati, the halfway point of a three-hour trip, that we realized our mistake: We’d assumed that Indianapolis was in the Central Time Zone; we’d assumed we’d gain an hour when we crossed into Indiana.

We’d assumed wrong, of course, and as we crossed the Indiana line, we realized that we had barely an hour to cover the remaining 90 miles. Bass shook his head. “We’ve got to call the TV station and tell them we can’t make it,” he said.

“Hang on,” I said. “Let me drive.”

He frowned, but he pulled over and let me take the wheel. And off we tore. Bass blanched when the speedometer hit 90, and he looked away as it passed 100. About ten minutes into our low-altitude flight in I-74, he called the TV station to explain our predicament. “Where are you now?” asked the producer. Bass told him. “Oh, I don’t think you’re gonna make it,” the producer said. “We’ll put something else in that slot.”

“Don’t give up on us yet,” I hollered.

Thirty minutes later, we called again. Bass gave the producer our new position. There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then the producer said, “Wow. You’re making really good time.”

We skidded into the parking lot at 11:59, dashed inside, mopped the sweat off our brows, and did the interview. Our on-camera energy was heightened by the adrenaline rush of the white knuckle drive, and the thrill of arriving on time against all odds. Of having evaded—or outrun?—the cops. Of having survived. We left the studio buoyed by the prospect of throngs of book-buyers, spiking sales.

Two people showed up that night. And no one bought the book. Because the “great indie bookstore”? They’d forgotten to order the book.

Exception #2: Another year, another city—Nashville, this time. A couple days before our event, we got an odd call from the bookstore. A man had phoned them to double-check the date of the signing and to ask if Bass and I both would definitely be there. The bookstore woman mentioned the man’s name, and my blood ran cold: Sam Passarella. I knew him by his nickname, “Fat Sam,” which was an understatement. He was a transplanted Jersey tough who’d became a redneck mobster in Middle Tennessee.

Did I mention our two true-crime books? One of them, a Bass memoir called Death’s Acre, had devoted a chapter to a kidnapping and murder carried out by Fat Sam and his henchmen. At the time we wrote about his case—a case Bass had helped solve by identifying a handful of teeth from the victim—Fat Sam was safely behind bars, doing a 30-year stretch.

But Fat Sam had done his time and gotten out. And now Fat Sam was looking for us.

Luckily, Bass and I have cop friends, and luckily, a couple of them agreed to watch our backs at the book signing.

Unluckily, we arrived at the bookstore before our security detail. And so did Fat Sam, along with a burly sidekick.

They maneuvered us into the bookstore’s café area, which was closed and deserted, then us into a circular booth, positioning themselves on either end of the bench, like hulking, menacing bookends. I started to sweat.

Everything got quiet. Really quiet. Then Sam reached inside his jacket, to the place where every cop-show fan knows a shoulder holster hangs. Shit, I thought. Here it comes.

Fat Sam’s hand emerging clutching… a manuscript?!? “I’m writing a memoir,” he said to me. He looked shy. “I was wondering if you could help me with it.”

I picked my jaw up off the table, stuffed my heart back down my throat, and took the proffered pages. I told Sam I’d be glad to take a look, but I allowed as how my writing plate was already mighty full. A week later, from a safe distance (Sam said he’d found God in prison, but I’ve noticed that even devout believers sometimes backslide), I emailed to say that, alas, I just couldn’t take the job. I wished him good luck with it—and I accepted his Facebook Friend Request.

I don’t know if Fat Sam ever finished his memoir. I do know that he was found dead—bludgeoned—in 2015. His Facebook page was filled with expressions of shock and grief. “I am broken-hearted and I can’t make it stop hurting. I love you Sam” posted the woman he’d been dating. Nine months later, the woman—a former police officer—was indicted for his murder.


R.I.P., Sam. I’m sorry you were murdered. I’m grateful I wasn’t.





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