Just finished “The Chemistry of Death” by Simon Beckett. It was passed along to me by my wife, who had plucked it randomly off the library shelves and enjoyed it, even though tales of forensic science and serial killers aren’t really her thing. I dug it down to the ground – it’s a contemplative thriller that immerses the reader in forensic details without ever being gross-you-out over-the-top gory. The novel takes a decidedly mature approach to its subject matter, probably because it’s written by a Brit.
David Hunter is a forensic scientist in London who had studied at the famous Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. (Which you’ll remember from the excellent “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach.) His wife and child were killed in an auto accident, so he packs up and retreats to a remote, desolate corner of England to become a village doctor and forget his previous life. His skills are called upon by the local police after a series of grisly murders terrorizes the small-town community. The twists and turns of “Chemistry” are gripping instead of cliched and tired, and like all good thrillers, the clues were there all along once you know the whole of it.
What really made “Chemistry” stand out was the care taken to present the village as a character itself – the small, tight-knit community begins to turn on itself and unravel as the murders progress. It made me think of another book, “The Church of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns, about murders in a small town in upstate New York. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels, a contemplative study of the secrets people keep from each other in a community, something that Robert Frost might have come up with if he ever tried his hand at a serial killer novel. Unlike “Chemistry”, the narrator isn’t really part of the murder investigation – he is a high-school science teacher who admittedly doesn’t know all the details of the narrative he’s presenting to us – but his slightly detached, outsider view of the town and the carefully constructed tale, like a piece of intricate origami artwork, makes for compelling reading.
Currently reading: “Then We Came to the End”, by Joshua Ferris.