Beckett, Simon - 'Whispers of the Dead'
This is Simon Beckett's third book featuring the forensic anthropologist David Hunter. At the start of this book, he has just left London to start working for a month at the 'Body Farm' in Tennessee with his old friend and mentor Tom Lieberman. His wife and 6 year-old daughter have been killed in a car crash and he has recently survived an attempt on his own life by a murderess who is still at large. Can he get his life back together and go back to the job he knows?
The Body Farm is a well-known research centre that helps pathologists to study first hand how dead bodies decompose under different conditions. But then, a real murder takes place up in a cabin in the woods and Tom and David go to take a look. Bizarrely, the body can only have been in the cabin for a few days, but the extent of decomposition suggests that it has been there much longer. A fingerprint picked up at the scene leads to the possible perpetrator (Willis Dexter), but he turns out to be a man who died in a car crash six months ago. They exhume his grave only to find another body that is again more decomposed than it should be. They come to the conclusion that it was probably left out to rot before being put in the casket. Moreover, the autopsy results suggest that the body isn't that of the 36 year-old Dexter, but fits better with a 50-60 year old African-American. Is Willis Dexter the murderer, or is it someone else? The causes of death are unclear but both the victims have 'pink teeth', which could have been caused by blood being forced into the teeth at the moment of death. It begins to look as though they are dealing with a serial killer. Then the consultant well-known profiler on the case goes missing, and things start to escalate.
The interesting idea that appears to provide the motive for the serial killer is the killer's fascination with the dead, death itself, and what happens at the point of death. Can it be captured and so be understood? The killer needs to kill people and photograph them at the point of death to do this. But who is the killer? How long have they been killing, and why are they suddenly making the murders so public? It seems they are getting frustrated with the lack of success and have a new grand plan that might finally give the answers needed.
The book is well written and nicely paced. The detail about the autopsies, decomposition and so on feels authentic and well researched. There is a gradual build up in tension, with clues scattered along the way. It seems clear that the killer is likely to be someone who works with bodies, but even though the perpetrator is right under their noses, no one guesses their potential involvement till the end of the story. David initially finds it difficult to become involved with the investigation, and doesn't trust himself, because of the recent events in his life. This isn't help by the evident distrust that the detectives investigating the case appear to have for him. He is worried about Tom, who has regular chest pains and is obviously ill, but won't stop his work. He begins to make friends with a colleague, Paul, and his heavily pregnant wife Sam. He is also attracted to a detective on the case, Jacobsen, although it is clear that she doesn't want to return his affections, and its not hard to guess why. He eventually has to take over from Tom, and gradually pieces together the clues to start to work out how the victims were killed. The book ends with an exciting and tense finale, in which David manages to discover the killer using a mixture of luck, intuition and skill. But finding the killer is not the end of the story and there are plenty more surprises to come. David is very much the central character in the book, and I would have liked to see a little bit more character development for some of the other main players. Early on in the book, there is an unnecessary scene when David is enjoying a social event with his new friends, but suddenly becomes frightened when he thinks the murderess has found him, which doesn't sit well with the main story. But overall, this was an enjoyable although somewhat gruesome book to read, and definitely one to recommend.
Michelle Peckham, England