The Chemistry of Death - Simon Beckett
The first in Beckett’s David Hunter series, this is a fast-paced thriller set in rural Norfolk. It tells the story of Dr David Hunter, who has left his career as a forensic anthropologist in London following a personal tragedy and works as a general practitioner in a small village. When the mutilated body of a local woman is discovered, he is reluctantly drawn into the police investigation.

This novel has some attractive features. Beckett can write decent prose, his grasp of the technicalities of forensic anthropology seems sound and there is no doubt that he has written a page-turner with some unpredictable twists. In addition, Hunter is a well-drawn and sympathetic protagonist.

However, the book does have a number of problems. Probably the most significant of these is that Beckett overuses foreshadowing. There are way too many instances of Hunter (who is the first person narrator for most of the novel) saying things such as “I didn’t know it then, but that was about to be proved in the way I least expected” and “In the coming days I would look back on this afternoon as one last glimmer of blue sky before the storm” with monotonous regularity. That sort of thing may be okay once or twice, but it soon got to be seriously annoying. Another problem is the use of gothic elements – particularly dreams – which don’t really add anything to the narrative.

Other problems may have more to do with me than they do with the book. Maybe in the past I read too much Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs* and watched one season too many of Silent Witness, or maybe it’s just that I’ve become more squeamish with age, but I find it increasingly difficult to read weird serial murderer stories. In particular, I find it very difficult to read about women being abducted and tortured, which is a feature of the novel. I also find it difficult to read about the mistreatment of animals and - not to put too fine a point on it - there are quite a lot of dead animals in this novel. I could say that the implausibility of the plot is another weakness of the novel. There’s no doubt that it is stunningly implausible, but implausibility goes with the territory of the crime fiction genre. Readers who need a believable narrative should probably avoid the genre altogether. That said, a slightly more persuasive ending would have been welcome.

This is not a bad effort for a first novel and I’ll read the second novel in the series before I decide if I want to read any more. If Beckett keeps writing overly gruesome serial murderer stories laced with heavy-handed foreshadowing, then that may be the end of the road for me. But I’m glad to have given a new series a try and, as always, I’ve really enjoyed the buddy read with my good friend Jemidar. For me, the book rates in the region of 3-1/2 stars, mostly because it really is a page-turner. I’d like to have been able to rate it more highly, but in recent times I’ve given four stars to Kate Atkinson’s novels and in my view Beckett is nowhere near as accomplished a writer.

*It's been quite some time since I read either of these authors. Cornwell I started to dislike after her first few books and Reichs I gave up reading because of the way she deals with the interpersonal relationships of her main character.