I have belatedly caught up with Simon Beckett, whose third David Hunter novel is set in Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, colloquially known as the ‘Body Farm’. After his previous cases in the fens of eastern England (The Chemistry of Death) and on a tiny, storm-wrecked island off the north of Scotland (Written in Bone), Hunter takes a visiting stint at the Tennessee lab while he recovers from the cliffhanger at the end of Written in Bone, when he was the victim of a surprise attack by an insane murderer. Hunter, who has lost his self-confidence and is sad about the ending of a relationship, is enjoying his scientific investigations in collaboration with the head of the lab Tom Liebermann. In this strange facility, people who have donated their bodies to scientific research are left outside after their deaths and the decomposition of their corpses is studied by scientists, with the aim of improving future forensic investigations.
All is going reasonably well for David, who is welcomed by his new colleagues and beginning to feel more stable, when a body in an advanced stage of decomposition is discovered in a remote cabin in the woods nearby. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), led by Dan Gardner, don’t want Hunter involved in their investigation as he’s English (i.e. not American), and instead put their trust in an egotistical profiler. Liebermann is nearing retirement age and suffers from a heart condition, so he insists that Hunter is involved in the analysis of the body (soon, inevitably, to become bodies, plural) – hence Hunter is not only privy to strange inconsistencies that quickly become apparent, but also points many of them out in the first place to the bemused investigators. Events escalate, and the TBI realise they are on the track of a serial killer – a killer who always seems to be one step ahead and who has unusually detailed knowledge of forensic pathology.
Although I found this book over-leisurely and long, it is a jolly good read. The investigators are sharp and although the killer leads them a jarring St Vitus’s dance, the plotting is tight, rich in detail, and logical. Suspects and victims crop up with increasing regularity, with Hunter (mainly) and the TBI team uncovering a range of clues that lead them into further mysteries. The forensic details and post-mortems are described with authoritative detail in direct, scientific prose, unflinchingly providing the reader with the essential information but passing on quickly from the more gruesome aspects. I could have done without the over-used device in crime fiction of interleaving the story with “in the mind of the killer” passages in italic. The result would have been a more focused, and perhaps more chilling, read. Although the first half of the book is too slow, it really takes off in the last quarter, leading to an exciting ending to the case. In many such novels, the ending can be a bit of a predictable let down, so I commend the author for keeping the tension so high and compelling.
Simon Beckett’s novels have been compared to those of Patricia Cornwell. This novel is much better, being a mixture of a very good plot and an overwhelmingly convincing account of forensic pathological and anthropological details. It seems that Hunter might not continue taking on Scarpetta in her own country, but even so, I would encourage readers who like the Scarpetta novels, or the Tempe Brennan novels of Kathy Reichs, to do themselves a favour and read this far superior fare.
There is an interesting article bound into this edition of the novel in which Simon Beckett writes about the background to the David Hunter novels and his inspiration for writing them.
*I purchased this novel for £2.99 as part of a W H Smith/Times “book of the week” promotion.
Whispers of the Dead has been reviewed at Euro Crime by Michelle Peckham.