Saturday, 23 January 2021

The Chemistry of Death - Simon Beckett


The Chemistry of Death is the first novel in Beckett's series about the forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter.  We begin with Hunter on the run from his high-pressure job following the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash.  Hunter understands better than anyone the processes of death and decomposition but has no idea how to cope with simple human grief.  So he reverts to his original profession as a GP and joins the rural practice of wheelchair-bound Henry Maitland in the sleepy Norfolk village of Manham.  Three years on and David has almost assimilated into the community.  Then a local woman goes missing, turning up dead several days later.  Routine inquiries bring police to the local surgery and DI Mackenzie discovers David's past.  David tries not to get involved but inevitably gets drawn in.  He knew this woman - they flirted briefly - and the clues, such as they are, are most definitely in David's area of expertise.  Then another woman disappears, and a third - the young schoolteacher Jenny, the day after she and David became a couple...

The level of scientific detail is impressive, capitalising on the novel's USP.  The characterisation is good, the writing style just right, but what makes the book is the plotting.  Anyone in the village could be the killer and Beckett manipulates us into considering the most likely suspects one by one.  The actual killer is fair game but then comes a killer twist.  Eminently satisfactory.

Beckett has written other books and is by no means a beginner.  He risks what many beginners often stumble over - occasional switches from the first-person narrative of David Hunter to third-person accounts of two of the women who disappear.  He just about pulls it off.  These episodes are not essential to the novel but they do add to the horror quotient and one towards the end is a clever red herring. Highly recommended.

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