Thursday, November 08, 2012

Whispers of the Dead, In Which David Hunt Can't Catch a Break

Simon Beckett is one of the better mystery/thriller writer's I've discovered in a while.  His main character, David Hunt, is a forensic anthropologist from the UK, complete with tragic past and an obsessive nature focused on finding justice for the dead.  Beckett's books are formulaic thrillers on the surface, but with a sense of malevolence and creepiness that does not always come across in other works in this genre.

Whispers of the Dead finds David taking a sabbatical from his work in the UK.  He is studying in the US, at a body farm in Tennessee just known as "the facility".  There, bodies are exposed to the elements in various ways so that pathologists and forensic anthropologists can study the effects of varying environments in the decomposition process.  And that is not even the grossest thing in this book!  David is mostly recovered physically from being attacked by a serial killer, but the fact that she escaped and is possibly hunting him down to finish the job makes it harder to heal emotionally.  He is hoping that getting away from England and his failed relationship with his girlfriend will give him some perspective, and help him figure out how to move forward.  He has barely arrived when he is drawn into a series of bizarre murders at the request of his old friend and mentor.  There is a killer at work in the Smoky Mountains, leaving bodies or parts of bodies in elaborate tableaux designed to draw the forensic people deeper and deeper into his crimes.  Soon David and his friend become targets themselves.  Can this really be happening to him AGAIN? (that would be the "David Hunt can't catch a break" part)

Despite the fact that it seems completely unlikely in real life that the same forensic anthropologist could be targeted by not one but two serial killers in succession, the fact is that the story is so good that I didn't even care that it wasn't that feasible.  The story is mostly told in the first-person from David's point of view, but at the end of each chapter is a vignette written in a slightly awkward second-person that reveals the mind of the killer.  There are plenty of hints dropped along the way, but even so I was still surprised by the twist at the end.  And Beckett is not afraid to kill off important major or minor characters, which adds a sense of unpredictability to the whole things that is refreshing in a formula genre book.  Whispers of the Dead is an excellent popcorn book-as long as you aren't too squeamish when you eat...er...read!

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