"Claire Carter, Bone Detective: The Mystery of the Bones in the Drainpipe" by Mary H. Manhein, illustrated by Leah Wood Jewett, Os Liber Press, 86 pages, softcover, $13
Claire Carter is a forensic anthropologist working in Louisiana. She stays busy, helping local law enforcement and investigative agencies when a body or, more commonly, unidentified bones turn up. She has a special assistant-in-training: her 11-year-old niece Penelope.
Claire is stoking Penelope’s interest in bone identification with some teaching props she got from a biological supply company. Penelope is one sharp cookie. She knows a lot already.
“I know that a grownup’s skeleton has 206 bones. I know that a kid has 20 teeth and an adult has 32. I know if I break a tooth, it won’t grow back like a squirrel’s or a rat’s,” she tells her aunt one day after her mother has dropped her off at Claire’s place and rushed off to handle an emergency. Penelope also knows about her aunt’s exciting work with real cases, and she is dying to go with her aunt on an investigation.
Of course, that’s when the phone rings. A detective in the city of Bankston needs Claire’s help. Penelope’s mom doesn’t answer her cell, so Claire has to let the little girl come along. On the way, Penelope reviews the names of bones she and Aunt Claire have studied. Claire lays down strict rules about the place they are going. Penelope will have to stay in the car with the doors locked until Aunt Claire tells her it is all right to get out.
When they get to Bankston, Claire meets the detective who shows her a collection of bones — in a toilet. A quick glance reassures Claire that the bones are not human. She lets Penelope come in to see the bones and to give the little girl a lesson in identifying animal bones. Although these are not human bones, as Claire and Penelope examine them, they learn the bones may be evidence of a crime after all.
Manhein is a familiar presence in the Baton Rouge area. She was formerly director of the LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory. She is author of several fiction and nonfiction books. This is her first juvenile novel. It’s told in the voices of Claire and Penelope and has a sweet tone. The subject matter is factual but not gory. When describing the bones that are found, Manhein has Claire use very detached, scientific language. This is a book that children 8-12 (or older) will enjoy, and parents will love that it’s both fun and educational.