I’ve just finished reading a book by an author new to me, Simon Beckett. ‘The Chemistry of Death‘ is the first in his series about a forensic anthropologist who retires from that challenging profession to be a country doctor in a remote part of rural Norfolk. His attempts to lead a more peaceful life away from the autopsy room and post mortems does not succeed and he once again tries to puzzle out what caused the death of a murder victim. It may not come as a surprise that this is essentially a police procedural even though the main character is not actually a police officer. The setting and the outline of the story may be familiar – the newcomer relocating to forget a personal tragedy, a newcomer who can never belong, the ‘stranger’ who is never fully trusted and becomes the first suspect, a gruesome murder with creepy and sadistic details, the female character who is destined to become a victim, a cast of brutish locals – but the writing, particularly at the beginning, is so good, the writer’s touch so deft and intelligent, that in a way the familiar tropes don’t matter because it’s a damn fine story. In fact, it was so good that I stayed up way too late despite an early start, and when I woke too early for that early start and couldn’t nod off again, I read some more. We went shopping and I read in the car, we came back and I read in the car on the way home. I unpacked the shopping then sat down to finish the story. It was that good, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
There was so much to admire in this book as you have gathered from what I’ve mentioned, however, as I got to the end – and I’m not giving any spoilers or referring to any of the plot or the denouement, my mind strayed to a very good friend, who is a marvellous and helpful reader of my own stories who gives me such good advice. She criticises but in a positive and constructive way, and one of the first things I remember her saying about one of my books was that it ended too abruptly. The plot went on apace, the tension mounted there was an exciting confrontation between goodies and baddies, a desperate struggle, goodies triumph but at some cost, closing paragraph, the end. My friend said the reader needed to unwind from the story, to stay within the book and gather their thoughts – not in a lengthy ramble, but in something like a breathing space before leaving and going on to their next read. It was very good advice, and I heeded it, and still remember it when I come to the end of what I’m writing.
In ‘The Chemistry of Death‘ the action comes to a climax and the perpetrator of the crimes is revealed – this was where I could hardly read fast enough to keep up with the action – but wait, what? No! it’s not that person, it’s another, and though the main character was safe, no they weren’t! The action girds its loins and gallops off again and there’s another episode of action and conflict and narrow escapes – but no! There is another breathless edge-of-the-seat episode. Even when all is revealed, the author still has another surprise up his sleeve but by this time I was feeling a little overwhelmed with it all and almost out of breath; much as I enjoyed the book and thought it clever and very well-written, I did think the resolution of the plot did go on just a little too long, and somewhat lost its impact. I’m sure people will disagree – it was very clever but I wondered if it was just a little too clever and if it went beyond what was feasible even within the elastic boundaries of fiction!
I have book 2 of the series now, ‘Written in Bone‘, and I look forward to reading it when I have caught my breath!