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The Chemistry of Death    by Simon Beckett order for
Chemistry of Death
by Simon Beckett
Order:  USA  Can
Delacorte, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though Dr. David Hunter, protagonist of The Chemistry of Death, is hiding from himself and still haunted by his past, new horrors force him to confront his personal demons. David was a world class expert in forensic anthropology, with experience at the Tennessee Body Farm - well known to crime scene investigators and readers of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta thrillers. David packed in that life after a drunk driver wiped out his small family, his expertise leaving him too well able to imagine their decomposing remains.

David has been working as a GP, partner in a small Norfolk medical practice in the village of Manham for three years. His partner and now friend, Dr. Maitland, had been struggling to cope with the solo practice after a car accident killed his wife and left him in a wheelchair. This comfortable - if not particularly happy - rural existence is interrupted by the discovery of a body in Farnham Wood. The victim turns out to be a woman known to David. Once the police inspector - 'a squat, pugnacious man called Mackenzie' - uncovers the local GP's background, he presses David hard to help with the investigation. Then a second local woman disappears, leaving David no choice but to get involved.

Simon Beckett does a good job of portraying life in this tranquil, isolated village and how local people react - with anger and shock that quickly escalates into prejudice and vigilante action - to a serial killer in their midst. The good doctor comes into conflict with the dour, elderly clergyman, and under suspicion from locals who wonder why he's spending so much time with the police (they assume he's a suspect). He dreams often of his dead wife Kara and small daughter, Alice, and dreads waking up. Then he meets the teacher (relatively new to the area) of the boy who found the first body. A cautious romance develops between Jenny Hammond and David Hunter, each damaged by their past.

Then the killer strikes again, it becomes a race against time for doctor and police, and David's dead wife Kara warns him in a dream. Though I had a small inkling of what was coming, the author's embellishments were totally unexpected and the ending left me breathless. The Chemistry of Death is an impressive debut, and readers will look forward with anticipation to Dr. David Hunter's next foray into forensic anthropology and murder.

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