This fast-paced sequel to The Chemistry of Death once again follows Simon Beckett's hero, forensic anthropologist David Hunter, as he travels to Runa, a small island in the Outer Hebrides, on the trail of a grisly discovery.
A body has been burned almost beyond recognition and left to rot in an abandoned and dilapidated cottage miles from anywhere.
For the past eighteen months, David has been living in London, based at the forensic department of City's university.
Recently, though, he's been spending more time working out in the field, much to the disappointment of his girlfriend, Jenny. Determined to
dedicate more time working on his relationship, David is not quite sure how to react when the phone rings and DS Graham Wallace of the Northern Force Headquarters asks him if he will investigate this strange fire death that has taken place out in wilds of the Western Isles.
The death doesn't sound particularly suspicious. It might even be a suicide, but is more likely a drunk or vagrant who fell asleep too close to the campfire. Still, there seems to be something odd about it; the facts just don't add up. A retired
detective inspector by the name of Andrew Brody lives out there now and apparently called it in. Wallace is desperate for David to give the department an expert assessment of the situation.
Soon enough David is on the ferry from Stornoway. As the turbulent sea crashes against the craft, for the first time the young anthropologist
sees the rugged landscape of Runa gradually appearing before him, a treeless vista, windswept and bleak.
In the distance the skyline is dominated by the brooding peak of Bodach Runa, the Old Man of Runa, its tip lost in the mist of low clouds, always beautiful but quite desolate.
It is also on this ferry that David meets some of the local inhabitants, many of whom will play a pivotal role in the story: the embittered and alcoholic Sergeant Fraser, who resents the intrusion into the Island of outsiders, particularly that of wealthy couple Andrew and Grace Strachan, who over the past several years have been investing their much-,needed capital into Runa; the affable PC Duncan McKinney, whose innocence causes him to become caught up in the investigation in unlikely ways; and local journalist Maggie Cassidy, whose diminutive exterior conceals the fact that she will stop at nothing to get to the heart of a good story.
When Brody takes David to the crime scene, David notices the faint sooty trademark whiff of combustion
emanating from the center of the ramshackle cottage. There is precious little left of what might have been a living person, the body reduced to ash; only an untidy pile of greasy residue and cinders
remain on the floor. But what really shocks David is the sight of two unburned feet and a single hand protruding from the ashes, the bones jutting from them, completely unmarked and scorched to blackened sticks.
The remains are quickly identified as that of a woman, and David hurriedly concludes that it looks like murder; he can't tell Brody and Fraser for certain that it isn't. There's also no way of knowing what may be hidden under the ashes, and he doesn't want to risk contaminating the scene.
When he finds that the victim appears to have been hit hard on the back of the skull by a blunt object, David becomes convinced that this is no accident. Somebody killed the woman then set fire to the body.
Amid this derelict cottage, its ceilings sagging and walls crumbling, Beckett sets David on a course of murder and pandemonium. The stink of burned flesh and bone combines with an icy winter storm that crashes into the
island, the weather like Runa itself saving the worst till last. Whatever secrets Runa holds, David becomes convinced that it won't give them up so easily.
When David finds himself cut off from the outside world, he's forced for the first time to truly rely on his survival instincts. From getting lost on the windswept plains just below the chilly peak of Bodach Runa to almost burning to death in the town's local medical center, David must draw upon his most precious resources. In the process, Beckett does a truly admirable job of bringing David's talents to life, juxtaposing his calm professionalism and analytical analysis of the burnt and torched bodies with his emotions as he gradually gets caught up in the lives of the people of Runa.
Fitting these fragments together is no easy task on a mission made even more sinister by the inclusion of a group of ancient burial cairns and menacing hooded figures that traipse through
the rain-soaked landscapes and icy streets of Runa at night. In the end, these evil forces eventually come alive in the form of long-held hostilities, murder gone totally out of control, the history of these violent acts forever written in the "charred bones of the dead."