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Jan 232014

I have no idea why the publisher decided not to publish Simon Beckett’s fourth Dr. David Hunter book in the United States, but it took me a long time to locate a copy of The Calling of Grave, published in the UK in 2010. It’s a measure of how much I enjoy the series that I continued to look all this time.

In the previous book, Hunter visited the university body farm in Tennessee; I mentioned that I’d be disappointed if he stayed there, even though I liked the third book in the series, and can happily report that in #4 he’s back in England.

But #4 begins in the past, with a prologue that recounts the tragic death of Hunter’s wife and daughter, an event that has formed a backdrop for the rest of the series. We learn here that they died in a car accident after he changed his plans and asked his wife to pick up their daughter so that he could rush off and confront a police officer whose actions upset his wife. That same officer, Terry Connors, figures into this mystery as well.

In The Calling of the Grave, Dr. Hunter along with Connors and several other characters, must revisit a failed attempt to locate the bodies of three victims of a serial killer, Jerome Monk. Monk is uncannily strong but deformed by a forceps delivery that killed his mother, which together with the fact that he’s confessed to killing several young women, is the stuff of nightmares. Now, 8 years later, Monk has escaped, and all the loose ends surrounding the case seem ominous.

Hunter gets involved when Sophie Keller, who had been a behavioral expert working on the first investigation, calls David and asks him to come to her home near the moors to talk with her. He’s not sure what’s going on, but he gets dragged into the case when he arrives and finds Sophie beaten and unconscious on the floor. He joins forces with her to try to figure out where Monk is and what happened all those years ago.

Like most serial killer books, there is plenty of violence to spread around; both David and Sophie are badly injured at various points, and several people die violent deaths before it’s over. But Beckett never indulges in gratuitous descriptions, and I didn’t find it to be too much.

Beckett’s next book, Stone Bruises, is a standalone thriller according to his website; I can only hope the publisher will remember his U.S. readers this time!

Many thanks to the Southwest Georgia Regional Library for purchasing a copy of The Calling of the Grave, and allowing me to borrow it through the PINES library system.

33 Teeth

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Feb 022012

In the glory that passed for 1970s U.S. orthodontia, I had 4 molars pulled to make room for the rest of my teeth, and then had all 4 (impacted) wisdom teeth removed.

I am not and never will be a shaman.

Dr. Siri Paiboun, however, discovers that he has 33 Teeth, a sure sign that he is a shaman, as he first discovered at the ripe old age of 72 in Colin Cotterill’s first Dr. Siri mystery, The Coroner’s Lunch. 33 Teeth takes place in 1976, and it involves a series of weird and unexplained deaths that the chief coroner of Laos, Dr. Siri, must try to figure out, despite an almost complete lack of medical and scientific instruments or assistance.

You have to be willing to believe that Dr. Siri could be a shaman, that he sees ghosts and that there might be a supernatural animal killing people. You also have to believe that a shaman could figure out how two badly charred bodies are connected to the royal family, and that he could meet the king without realizing it. But all of that is the charm of the series: serious issues addressed with cleverness and wit, so that you laugh even as you witness the deplorable conditions that people endure in communist, postwar Laos.

Sep 092011

The follow-up to The Chemistry of Death, Simon Beckett‘s forensic mystery Written in Bone (2007) is better written and more engaging with better twists and several notable characters.

In the first book, Dr. David Hunter must come to grips with his career as a forensic anthropologist following the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter. All of that emotional baggage behind, Hunter can now concentrate on doing his job. In fact, he might be a little too wrapped up in his work; as he finishes one investigation he’s asked to head out to a secluded Scottish island called Runa to investigate a suspicious death — although no one seems to want to tell him what’s suspicious about it.

During the course of his investigation a tremendous storm engulfs the region, cutting the island off from communication with the rest of the world. That leaves Hunter and a couple of cops to investigate the mystery while also trying to protect the islanders from a suddenly mad killer who will do anything/kill anyone to keep his identity hidden.

In my review of The Chemistry of Death I complained about some loose ends; I didn’t notice any in this book, although there was one rather silly scene in which Hunter realized a way to communicate with the mainland which any of the islanders should’ve known but “forgot” about. Aside from that I thought the book was well written, with a good setting and characters I wanted to read about. And Hunter’s return from the island provides yet another twist to the story — one which had me rushing right back to the library to get the next book in the series.

Counts as the “book set outside the country in which you live” in the Criminal Plots Reading Challenge

May 202011

Although my review of Elly Griffiths’ first book, The Crossing Places, was pretty grumpy, when I saw her second Ruth Galloway mystery, The Janus Stone (2010), I picked it up and read it immediately (never mind the other stacks of books sitting around my bedroom). There’s obviously something appealing in this series even for a grumpy reviewer.

And, I’m pleased to say, I liked this one more — perhaps partly because Ruth is much less passive, but also, I think, because the mystery is more believable and because Ruth has winnowed out some of her less deserving friends.

The book begins with yet another discovery of a dead girl’s bones (is there a square foot in Ruth’s part of England that doesn’t contain a dead girl’s remains?), buried under a doorway. Ruth is called in to use her forensic anthropology skills to help the police understand more about the bones. Like the first book, this story blends ancient — in this case, Janus, who symbolizes not only doorways but beginnings and endings — with current — accusations against or at least questions about priests regarding children — to create tension and an almost mystical atmosphere.

Ruth’s personal situation also adds interest: she’s pregnant and hasn’t told the father yet, and doesn’t seem to really want to tell him given that he’s married to someone else. The one thing I didn’t like about this story line is that Ruth seems to be befriending the father’s wife, which just strikes me as out of character. Is it fair of me to say something is out of character when I’m not the writer of the character? Well, it’s how I feel regardless!

Mar 252011

I first heard about Simon Beckett’s The Chemistry of Death (2006) in Swapna Krishna’s review, in which she pointed out that although forensic anthropology can be pretty gross, in this book the descriptions are more clinical than graphic. I know what she means — the forensics books get to me sometimes, too.

Swapna also provided a good synopsis:

After a horrible accident that claims the lives of his wife and daughter, Dr. David Hunter moves to the small town of Manham in order to become a GP. He wants to leave his past behind, to forget what happened. But when a body is found and the police discover that Hunter used to be one of the top forensic anthropologists in the country, they push him into putting his old skills to use again.

It turns out that a serial killer is loose in David Hunter’s new home, and because he’s the new guy in town he’s under instant suspicion. I like the premise — that Hunter can’t run away from his past — but thought there were some loose ends that detracted from my overall assessment of the book. (For instance, I still don’t know how the killer could’ve known that the second victim thought she might be pregnant.)

However, if you’re in the mood for serial killer suspense or the whole forensics scene, this book has both, tastefully done.

Book #3 in the 2011 Thriller and Suspense Challenge

Sep 162010

Last semester I was fortunate to hear Deborah Blum speak at the university where I teach, and I knew from her entertaining and informative talk that her book was going to be a treat. Her topic is “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York,” and her book is The Poisoner’s Handbook (2010). Early in her talk, she showed us her Victorian poison ring, which pops open so a poisoner could quickly dump poison into someone else’s food or drink, and said that “people don’t like to eat with me anymore!”

The book is nonfiction, but Blum herself sees the connection between her research and crime fiction, writing:

There exists a kind of murder mystery pleasure to the subject of poinsons; crime novelists, especially in the early twentieth century, have written them into countless tales of intrigue. I’ve always admired the stylish writing of those vintage novels…. (p. 280)

She points to Agatha Christie’s use of strychnine in 1920 as an example. Yet Blum also recognizes that the stories she tells are (literally) deadly serious. Her tale examines how New York City’s fledgling office of the chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, examined poisoning, devoting chapters to various toxins like chloroform and arsenic, as well as carbon monoxide and Prohibition-era bootleg alcohol. It’s a story of an ongoing battle between poisoners and scientists who try to understand — and prove in court — what happened. Each chapter has anecdotes about investigations into tragedies and the people involved.

The science is readable, and Blum’s sense of humor shows through here, as it did in her talk. “Carbon monoxide,” she writes, “can be considered as a kind of chemical thug. It suffocates its victims simply by muscling oxygen out of the way” (p. 137).

In her talk, Blum said she likes her book because it’s about ordinary people making choices, not celebrities, and because we still live with ready access to poisons — some of her information is still useful to readers today. I think it would be especially useful to a mystery writer!

When asked about the danger of copycat criminals learning from her work, she pointed out that it’s easier to get information from the Internet and that she’s certainly not the first to write about poisons. Another question concerned animal rights, in that she portrays the chemist Alexander Gettler as a hero although he used animal research (not to mention digging up human corpses from the potter’s field for research) — Blum won a Pulitzer for a newspaper series on primate research — and she said that “No one thought like that in the 1920s”; moreover, Gettler was not gratuitously cruel in his research.

Like her talk, Blum’s book is entertaining as well as informative, and mystery readers who like nonfiction will enjoy it.

Buy the book:

Jun 302010

I read about Peter May’s “Freeze Frame” (2010) on Lesa Holstine’s blog and decided right away that I wanted to read it. I don’t do ratings, but if I did, this book would get a WOW. Even my 5-year-old could tell that I was into this one (she asked me if I finished that book I really liked yet).

What made it so intriguing?

First, it’s got a great premise. Forensics expert Enzo McLeod is attempting to solve all the unsolved cold cases profiled in a book written by a friend; this is the fourth of seven cases. In this one he travels to a cold and unwelcoming Channel island to solve the mysterious death of an elderly man who was dying of cancer anyway. Just before his murder, Adam Killian called his daughter-in-law and told her he’d left an important message for his son in his study, and begged her not to touch a thing until the son returned from Africa. Unfortunately for all concerned, not only was Adam killed (as he’d evidently suspected would happen), but his son died in a car accident before he returned to find the message. Twenty years later, Enzo visits the still-untouched study to search for the clues that have eluded all previous investigators.

Second, May has created a compelling character. Enzo is a loner who seems perfectly suited to the cold and unwelcoming atmosphere of the island, although the island itself makes him claustrophobic. At the same time, he’s working on improving his relationships with his two daughters and wants to build a relationship with Charlotte, a much younger woman who’s been putting him off — I’m sure there’s more to this storyline in the previous books, but the relationship takes what would seem to be an unexpected turn in this one.

Third, I really enjoyed Freeze Frame‘s structure. The first couple of chapters introduce a character’s history, but we don’t know who he is at first (hero, villain, victim?), which means that we know just a bit more than Enzo, but not too much more and certainly not enough to solve the case. Since Enzo’s already cleared the first three unsolved mysteries, it’s not a spoiler to say he solves this one, too.

I chose the wrong series to break my tradition of always trying to start a series at the beginning. You can bet I’m going back to read Enzo Files 1-3, before 5 comes out.

Buy the book:

Book #4 in Book Chick City’s Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010

Apr 222010

I was in the middle of a “Bones” audiobook when I happened across a copy of “The Christopher Killer,” by Alane Ferguson (2006), so I decided to make a forensics week of it.

First, Temperance Brennan. I never really got into the “Bones” series (and haven’t watched the show); I guess I liked Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and my tummy can only tolerate so much forensic medicine. But I really liked “Bones to Ashes” (2007), I think partly because Kathy Reichs spends a good bit of the time talking about Tempe’s childhood relationships with her sister and their friends Evangeline and Obeline, French Canadian girls who went missing under mysterious circumstances during their annual visit to their aunt and uncle on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. But also because it’s a good mystery about missing or dead girls and unexpected ties to Evangeline and Obeline’s past. Like an unfortunately large number of books these days, sexual abuse of children is involved, but Tempe and her friends/colleagues are determined to put a stop to it. And finally, I really liked listening to the audiobook because the story is set in Montreal, and all those French names and place names are beyond my ability to pronounce, even in my head. :-)

Cameryn Mahoney is the Temperance Brennan of YA literature. At 17 years old, Cameryn talks her father, the county coroner in a tiny Colorado mining-turned-tourist town, into letting her serve as his assistant. Leaving aside all the problems inherent in this premise, I can easily say that I would’ve loved this series as a teenager. In the first book, “The Christopher Killer,” Cameryn, who has studied forensics on her own time, uses her knowledge combined with logic and intuition to solve the murder of her friend. Although there are some gruesome parts, it was fairly well sanitized for age-appropriate reading. I also looked at the second book in the series, which adds a new boyfriend to the mix, and I can recommend this series for younger teens who like mysteries but are past the Nancy Drew and Kiki Strike stage.

I still can’t say I enjoy reading about forensics, but both of these female forensic detectives are scientists first, and they discuss dead bodies and autopsies and the like in a way that not only honors the victims’ dignity but also with a determination to help understand what happened so justice can be served. Can’t argue with that.

Buy the audiobook and the book:

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