Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 438 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a straightforward crime thriller that delivers the right ingredients to keep me turning the pages: strong characterisation, a sympathetic narrator, a claustrophobic setting, a smattering of gruesomeness and fear, lots of dark secrets, a good plot and plenty of twists, turns and red herrings to keep me guessing all the way to the end. Simon Beckett’s Chemistry of Death certainly ticks all the right boxes.
Set in rural Norfolk, it tells the story of a young widowed GP, Dr David Hunter, who has a secret past: he was once a forensic anthropologist but gave it all away following the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Now living a new life in a small village, Dr Hunter is dragged back to the past when two local children stumble upon the decomposing body of a woman in the woods. The police seek his help to determine the time of death and before he knows it, he is completely embroiled in their investigation. It looks like there is no way out when a second body — and then a third — is discovered a short time later…
Beckett is an accomplished writer. The plot moves along at a furious pace, with rarely a dull moment, and each chapter ends with a “hook” that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages. He’s a master at ratcheting up the tension, so that at times you can feel your pulse racing in tandem with the heart-stoppingly good storyline.
But the best thing about this book is that Beckett makes the subject of forensic anthropology incredibly interesting. He has done his research — in fact, an article he wrote about the USA’s National Forensic Academy for the Telegraph magazine in 2002 is included at the back of this novel — which adds to the authenticity of the storyline. Is it any wonder he has been compared to Patricia Cornwall, the queen of forensic thrillers?
It’s only towards the end of the book that I discovered a few false notes. The climax, in particular, was slightly melodramatic and a little unbelievable — although the story was so powerful it needed to end with a big narrative “punch”. But this is just a minor criticism. As a whole I thoroughly enjoyed The Chemistry of Death and rather suspect that anyone who likes their thrillers to be packed with spine-tingling moments and stomach-churning detail will enjoy it too.
1 thought on “‘The Chemistry of Death’ by Simon Beckett”
I enjoyed this novel; it was a good UK crime fiction debut. In this case, for me, it was the setting that led to the key originality that had me wanting to read on. He now has another novel out: Written in Bone – one I shall seek out when I have the opportunity and the time. I’m sure it will be pucker!