Haunted by dreams of the traffic accident that killed Kara and Alice, his wife and young daughter, three years ago, Dr. David Hunter flees from London and turns his back on everything he knows, eventually settling in the bucolic Norfolk village of Manham.
Plagued by the constant reminder of what he's lost and questions that he can't answer, David's solitary existence is short-lived when, together with his best-friend and older colleague, the paraplegic Henry Maitland, he must bring to bear his secondary occupation as a forensic anthropologist in order to solve a series of gruesome murders.
One morning, the decomposing body of local woman Sally Palmer is found by two young boys deep within in the sunken marshes of the shallow lake on the outskirts of the village. Her body has been savagely mutilated, two deep cuts sliced into the flesh
on either side of her spine. Thrust into the wound is a pair of white swan wings.
David, of course, feels nothing but pity for the poor mutilated body, but when Detective Mackenzie, who is placed in charge of the case, asks him to assist in the investigation, he is hesitant, thinking that it will dredge up memories of his past. Yet when David discovers that the murdered girl is Sally, his neighbor, he feels compelled to help.
Thus begins the wearisome, frustrating task of piecing together the few facts that he can deduce from the crime scene. When another woman goes missing, word spreads quickly around the village, this latest terrible news spinning the townsfolk from almost febrile excitement into shock and horror.
Without a definite suspect and no solid evidence, David must use his unique skills to deduce what he can from the crime scene. Looking at such elements as the iron content of the soil and the maggots and other insects that literally feed off the decomposing fuel of the dead bodies, the forensic pathologist begins to piece together the mystery of what might have happened to these women.
While Mackenzie continues to demand coherent answers, David finds solace with Jenny; she too is an outsider, a stranger in this insular town. But when events begin to spiral out of control and Jenny's life is placed in danger, David sees his past misfortune superimposed upon the present as he begins to revive the nightmare of losing Kara and Alice all over again.
The Chemistry of Death is British crime fiction at its best. Gruesome, shocking and disturbing but also compelling and quite gripping, author Simon Beckett never shies away from his detailed descriptions of the decay process and his exploration of the "time since death interval," the changes
that take place in the body chemistry just after death.
As the story races towards a heart-stopping climax on this preternaturally hot summer in this deceptively cheery town, David begins to do his own sleuthing.
In the process, he discovers that the enemy, the murderer of these poor young women, is hiding just where he least expects.
Experience has clearly shown David that the smallest details can be the most important.
He needs to know this, especially if he is going to throw his reticence to the wind, save the poor, fearful Jenny, and
in the process hopefully discover who might be committing these grisly murders.