Beckett, Simon - 'The Chemistry of Death'
After a devastating personal tragedy, Dr David Hunter gave up life in London for the quiet of a small Norfolk village. After three years, he's more or less settled in, (even if still viewed by locals as an outsider) when two young boys find a woman's decomposing body on local land, and his life is turned on its head again. Hunter used to be one of the country's leading forensic anthropologists, and when the local police - struggling with a case in which they seem distinctly out of their depth - find out they try to draft him in. At first Hunter is markedly reluctant, unwilling to be snagged back into reminders of his old life, but gradually he submits to lend his help. And then another local woman goes missing…
One would be forgiven for thinking this Beckett's debut. Indeed, while not specifically referred to as such in any of the publisher's material (that I can find!) or the author website, they seem to be almost at pains to make us think it is. However, I can find at least two other crime novels which seem to have been penned in the 90s by a journalist named Simon Beckett (FINE LINES and WHERE THERE'S SMOKE). Possibly not the same Beckett, but I would be surprised if so. Its not a particularly important point, but it certainly intrigued me to find out that this may not be the debut I'd previously thought it. (And hence no "very assured for a debut"-type comments that I would probably otherwise have made.)
Anyway…THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH is a novel very much in the vein of the American forensic thrillers by Cornwell and Reichs, but transported to Britain (and, to be fair, it is much better written than the later works of the former and the entire works of the latter). And not only transported to Britain, but to that old staple of the British mystery, the village. It manages to juxtapose the wide scope of a major investigation with the insular, claustrophobic sense of a mid-to-large-village very well indeed. It’s an unusual mix, not one that I can remember coming across before, and it works well (even if it may risk a kind of atmosphere-overkill… Luckily, a good focus on character prevents this.)
I always cringe when all I can think to say is that a protagonist is "likeable", but that label fits Hunter perfectly. He's warm, good company, and rather well-drawn, with the capacity for further elaboration in future books. One or two of the other characters could do with a bit of work, but overall Beckett presents a colourful and interesting bunch, particularly the nicely dislikeable local minister! Being a journalist, he has that good eye for telling details of character. It also gives him that perfect sense of just what kind of detail to go into which journalists seem to have. He knows exactly the level of detail to pitch the prose at to get the perfect balance of depth and pace. The writing of the whole thing is of distinctly above-average quality for this kind of thriller - though, there is far too much use of "it was a decision I would come to regret later"-type sentences to create suspense. They're peppered throughout the text, never really seem to end up referring to anything in particular, are a bit melodramatic, and are lazy. Most importantly, they're just not needed, as the story and writing are perfectly suspenseful without these false attempts to ratchet up tension. At one point he writes "I made a decision that would echo down the weeks to come, one that would change my own life as well as that of others", when in fact the decision he makes doesn't really have any real influence on the outcome! (And I'm not sure it shouldn't be "those of others" anyway, though I could easily be wrong.)
Overall, THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH is a fine thriller indeed, and a certain page-turner. It's clever, easy to read, and very enjoyable. The solution is (half, at least) a definite surprise (even though there's a touch too much madness in the conclusion. You'll know what I mean), and wraps the whole thing up nicely. And not only that, but it easily sets up the next outing for Hunter. It's one I'll certainly be looking out for.
Read another review of THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH.
Fiona Walker, England