With The Chemistry of Death author Simon Beckett has found himself on the shortlist for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award (formerly known as the CWA’s Gold Dagger for Fiction).
In The Chemistry of Death, it is no coincidence that Dr David Hunter seeks out an isolated Norfolk village and a local GP practice as his refuge. Formerly a high profile forensic anthropologist assisting the police with their cases, he suffered a major trauma and his change of career and move to the countryside is his way of getting over it. But, the mutilated body of a young woman is found near the village. Like Hunter, the woman was an outsider who had chosen to settle in the area.
It is not long before the local police become aware of just who Hunter is and his history and they call on him for assistance; something he is reluctant to give as he seeks a new life. Another woman then disappears and the local community falls into a storm of distrust, back biting and fear.
This was the stage where the book ratcheted up the gears for me as Beckett does so well in describing the members of the local community and exposing us to the impact of their irrational fears. (Another good example and reminder from crime fiction of why we have the police and why vigilantism is not a good thing.) Hunter, good local doc that he is, is not immune to the fears of the locals and their attacks.
I found the plot a tad predictable but this was mitigated by one twist that I did not see coming at all.
This book’s a good read and it brings the working world of the forensic anthropologist to the UK. (Formerly, only seen through the eyes of Kathy Reichs’s character Temperance Brennan.) Beckett’s inspiration for this novel came from his work a journalist when he covered "The Body Farm" in the US. He spent some time there and learnt a lot about the science and chemistry of decompostion. This is very present in his novel, but it is not gratuitous or too frequent and neither does is read like "Look at all this studying I’ve done". It adds to our understanding and helps seal the clues.
The summer’s coming, (we have only today to remind us here in the UK), so the holidays will soon be upon us. If you’re planning a trip to Norfolk, it might be better to read the book when you return…
The Chemistry of Death doesn’t have the pace of an American forensic thriller, but that’s simply because the Brits do it differently. Both have a place and can sit alongside one another quite happily. Beckett’s work here is remarkably good and sits alongside some other well respected names in the nominations for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger. These include: Ann Cleeves for Raven Black; Thomas H. Cook for Red Leaves; Frances Fyfield for Safer Than Houses; Bill James for Wolves of Memory and Laura Wilson for A Thousand Lies.