Simon Beckett, The Chemistry of Death
After the uneventfulness of Tomorrow, by Graham Swift, our book club elected this forensics thriller as our next topic of discussion, in the hope of reading a novel where something actually happens…
David Hunter is a broken man, who, after a personal tragedy, flees London for the village of Manham, in Northfolk. David used to work as a forensics expert, but it is to help the local GP, disabled after a car accident, that he has been hired. David settles in the small community, and starts to feel like he belongs, when the body of a woman, Sally Palmer, is found mutilated and badly decomposed in the woods. As soon as the police discovers who David is, they ask for his expertise, and David reluctantly agrees to help them. But when a second woman goes missing, suspicions arise amongst the villagers, and is directed towards the outsiders, and as someone coming from London, David is one of their targets…
The Chemistry of Death is an original forensic thriller, in the sense that it differentiates itself from novels from Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs, because it mixes the forensic elements with the particular British atmosphere found in P.D. James’s or Elizabeth George’s novels, for instance. The fact that the author is a journalist and not an expert himself is also a plus: I remember reading, in a Kathy Reichs’s novel, pages about the damages that a blade can make on bones, and thinking that I was getting much more information than I needed (which is often the problem with experts: they are so passionate with they area of knowledge that they want to share everything. A journalist just knows how to pick up the fascinating bits and leave out the rest).
We all enjoyed the character of David Hunter, a “nice guy”, haunted by his memories, a dependable, decent man, a likeable hero, and his journey from despair back to enjoying life is an interesting one. We also liked to hate the character of one of the “bad guys”, the vicar of the community, who uses the tragic events to put the fear of God into his parishioners. Both characters really stood out from the rest.
However, we felt a bit disappointed by the ending. We would have liked to have a better insight into the culprit’s motivations. As it was, we did not find his character to be believable. We inferred that it is often the problem with forensic thrillers, that they tend to focus on the science of death itself (which is pretty interesting), but they are generally a bit light on psychology and characterization.
We agreed that The Chemistry of Death was entertaining, difficult to put down (it stayed with us between reading sessions), but that it did not make such a great discussion material. Our talk on the book itself was much shorter than usual, but, even if it wasn’t the best discussion material, we are all ready to read another forensics thriller featuring David Hunter in the future (not as a book club reading, though…)