With only three stops more after this stop at the letter “W,” the alphabet in crime fiction community meme is making steady progress. My thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping the tour group together, on schedule and safe. Not an easy task, considering the crime-ridden landscape ; ). My choice for this stop on the tour is Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, published in 2009. Thanks very much to Maxine at Petrona for most generously sending this to me.
This novel begins immediately after the events in Beckett’s previous novel, Written in Bone. David Hunter, a forensic anthropologist, is recovering from the physical and emotional damage he suffered as a result of what happened in Written in Bone. He’s also recovering from a breakup with his girlfriend, Jenny. In an effort to heal and put some distance between himself and his trauma, Hunter accepts an invitation from his former mentor, Tom Liebermann, to spend a month doing research at Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, otherwise known as The Body Farm. Hunter is only too happy to get away from London, and is looking forward to both his research and renewing his acquaintance with Liebermann. One day, the lab receives word of a decomposed body found in a cabin not far away. Since Liebermann’s usual assistant, Paul Avery, isn’t available to go along on the investigation, Hunter agrees to go, although he’s somewhat reluctant to get involved.
When Hunter and Liebermann arrive at the scene, they meet Tennessee Bureau of Investigations agents Dan Gardner and Diane Jacobsen. Hunter is reluctantly accepted as part of the team, and he and Liebermann get to work trying to learn what they can from the body, which has been found in an unusual position. In fact, that and other clues lead insufferable pathologist Donald Hicks and obnoxious profiler Alex Irving to believe that the crime was a sexually-motivated crime. Some inconsistencies in the evidence make Hunter and Liebermann wonder if that’s too hasty a conclusion, so as soon as they can, they get the body back to the laboratory for more forensic testing.
Before long, it’s apparent that there’s more to this case than a simple sexually-motivated killing. The forensic evidence is inconclusive and contradictory, and even identifying the body isn’t as easy as the team thought it might be. Then, another body is discovered, and that killing has some of the same hallmarks as the previous one. Then, Alex Irving goes missing, and it’s soon clear that Libermann, Hunter and the rest of the team are after a serial killer who’s smart enough to confuse the trail. While the investigation is going on, Tom Liebermann dies of a heart attack. Now, Paul Avery has to step up to the directorship of the lab, and he, Hunter, Gardner and Jacobsen have to trace the killer before any more deaths occur.
Throughout the novel, we see the events through the eyes of David Hunter. We also see several of them through the killer’s eyes; the murderer’s perspective is interspersed throughout the story in small vignettes at the end of several chapters. This dual point of view can interrupt the “flow” of the story for those who prefer to just read the story straight through. It does add breadth to the story, though, and heightens the suspense. In the end, after the killer strikes very close to the lab, Hunter, Avery, Gardner and Jacobsen track the killer down and, in a dramatic dénouement, are able to stop the murderer.
Whispers of the Dead is a fast-paced novel that’s got several believable plot twists and surprises. In fact, that’s one of the appeals of the novel. The plot is believable, even when we find out that the killer is a serial killer with a very strange obsession. The characters and events ring true, especially the characters’ reactions to what happens in the story.
Another appeal of Whispers of the Dead is the authentic forensic details Beckett provides. This novel is not for the squeamish, but it’s obvious that the technical detail is well-researched. It’s also an interesting way to provide the reader with clues about who the killer is. The novel also gives us an interesting look at how a forensics laboratory works. It’s detailed and authentic without being melodramatic or gratuitous. The reader learns something about how forensics testing is accomplished, and what it can (and can’t) show us.
The novel also gives us a look “behind the scenes” at the interplay between various law enforcement agencies, the morgue, and the forensics laboratory. Relationships among these agencies are not always cordial, and we see how that plays out during an investigation. In fact, that interplay provides an undercurrent of tension in the novel that keeps the reader interested.
Probably the most memorable aspect of the novel, though, is the characters. David Hunter is a well-rounded protagonist. He’s still dealing with his own recent trauma, and facing his own demons, and that struggle is presented realistically; for instance, a few times in the novel, he suffers flashbacks. Yet, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity, and he shows himself to be a likable, interesting character. The other characters, too, are well-drawn. Even the secondary characters are given personalities and life. For instance, Summer, one of the forensic students that Hunter meets, is given a personality of her own and a role to play in the novel, even though she’s not a central character, nor does she really play a pivotal role in solving the murders. The same is true of Samantha Avery, Paul Avery’s pregnant wife. She doesn’t solve the murders, or go after the killer. Yet, her character is three-dimensional and sympathetic. We care about the people in this novel. We feel their growing fear as the killer keeps on striking, and we want them to catch the murderer. Even the unpleasant characters are multidimensional, rather than “flat.”
Whispers of the Dead is not for those who prefer quiet mysteries or cozies. Still, the plot is compelling, the pace is fast without being confusing, the violence is not gratuitous (although it is a violent book), and the character of David Hunter is interesting and we get to see him develop as the book moves along. I recommend it, especially for those who like well-written forensic mysteries.
If you haven’t read Beckett’s Written in Bone, I recommend you do so before you read Whispers of the Dead. There are spoilers throughout the novel. Also, readers will want to pay attention to the changes in point of view as the novel moves along. The killer’s point of view is given in italics, but the change in point of view can be distracting if one’s not prepared for it.