Whispers of the Dead
Simon Beckett
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Buy *Whispers of the Dead* by Simon Beckett online

Whispers of the Dead
Simon Beckett
320 pages
May 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A virtual bloodbath of murder and decomposing corpses, Beckett’s latest thriller finds David Hunter, the author’s anthropologist hero, assisting the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in the hunt for a cold-blooded serial killer who leaves a trail of mayhem throughout Knoxville and the forest-covered slopes of the Tennessean Smoky Mountains.

We meet David several months after his near-fatal stabbing by the evil Grace Strachan and the events that concluded Written in the Bone. Although Grace was never captured, David is looking for away to regain his edge and resolve some hard decisions, and to recharge his emotional batteries, perhaps finally putting the malevolent machinations of Grace behind him.

Accepting an invitation from his old colleague and friend Tom Lieberman to attend the Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville (better known by another, less formal name as the “Body Farm”), David finds himself thrust back into the thick of things when a call comes through from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that a body has been found high in an isolated mountain cabin.

The scene looks like homicide, the corpse covered in maggots and naked, spread-eagled on its back, arms and legs draped over the table edges, the maggots dripping from it onto the floor “like boiled milk.” Joining forces with Dan Gardner, Assistant Special Agent in charge, and Diane Jacobsen, part of the Field investigations Unit, Tom and David work to unlock the puzzle behind a killer who is letting them see he knows about details: “He’s not testing us, he’s bragging how clever he is.”

The discovery of a film canister and a fingerprint at the crime scene adds an interesting twist to the investigation - yet the originator of the print was killed in a car crash six months before. Still, this new and vital piece of information leads the team to exhume a body at a local cemetery. When they discover that the grisly contents of the casket seem to be decomposing too rapidly, David is truly flummoxed, the bloody condition of the body raising more questions than answers.

Clearly a violent killer lurks nearby, ready to strike, but despite all his expertise David is causing friction. The local members of the Tennessee Bureau resent this young foreigner who has wondered into their midst. David is reluctant to back out, his professional instincts suddenly kicking back into life when the horror of the situation comes close to him and at stake are the lives of all those he cares for.

The unique world of Tennessee law enforcement is depicted with great insight, along with the petty animosities, frustrations, and wariness of David. Amid bone and cartilage, mummified skin, memories of a sunlit garden and of dragonflies and corpses, Beckett weaves into his nightmarish plot a newly vulnerable and conflicted David, a man out of place yet also driven by the need to get to the truth behind the murderer’s modus operandi.

In tightly controlled prose, Beckett continues to hone his skills as a mystery writer. He plunges us into the dark side of human pathology and forensic techniques - and the grisly anatomical details of decomposing corpses - the sudden paper trail of victims leading to the next and a portrait developing of a terrifying imposter who delights in misdirection, seeming to slip into the lives of his victims so easily it’s as though he’s “sloughed the skin from their hands.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2009

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