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Posted on 2 Jul 2019 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

SIMON BECKETT The Scent of Death. Reviewed by Louise Mentor

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Simon Beckett’s new thriller takes his Dr David Hunter series into sinister territory.

Instantly immersive, this gripping new addition to the bestselling David Hunter series by Simon Beckett focuses on the discovery of a partially mummified body  in the loft of a derelict North London hospital called St Jude’s. Shut for a decade, the deserted Victorian building – slated for demolition – has been a magnet for drug dealers, addicts, rough-sleepers and squatters. With an ominous history spanning an 1870 typhoid outbreak, the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, and the bombing of the east wing during World War II, this is a place overly familiar with the scent of death:

… I went back into the hospital’s dark interior.

It was like stepping into a pit. Even climbing the stairs somehow felt like being underground, far beneath fresh air and daylight. At the top, I paused when I saw the windowless corridor stretching ahead of me. It seemed to go on for ever. Floodlights were dotted along its length, disappearing into the distance like a night-time landing strip. Giving an involuntary shiver, I set off down it …

A gifted forensic anthropologist, protagonist Dr David Hunter enters this ominous setting to lend his expertise in assessing the corpse, which was discovered by a member of the bat-conservation society. But St Jude’s harbours more grisly secrets than just the one victim. A misstep by Professor Conrad, the forensic pathologist on the case, sends him falling through the rotting floor of the attic to land in a hidden room. The warren-like architecture of the hospital confuses the police, who can’t locate the injured professor. So Dr Hunter takes matters into his own hands, defying the orders of the DCI and making his way down from the precarious loft to tend to his colleague. This is not unusual behaviour for Hunter. Time and again he ignores instructions or advice from others – not from defiant rebelliousness, but to pursue his own instincts, guided by an emphatic moral compass that often leads him into dangerous situations.

It turns out that Professor Conrad has landed in a bricked-up chamber in the old paediatric ward. The room has no doors, no way in, and no way out. In this forgotten place two more dead bodies are discovered:

… There was an odour in the air I’d been too busy to notice before. Faint and masked by the smell of dust and plaster from the collapsed ceiling, it was the foully sweet scent of decay. From what I could make out, both bodies were fully clothed, and I could distinguish dark bands across their chests and legs. At first I couldn’t think what they could be, but then I realized.

They’d been strapped to the beds …

The investigation into the bodies is complicated by the protests of a local community group angered by the commercial development proposed for the historic site. At loggerheads with them – and anyone else threatening to delay the works – is Keith Jessop, the demolition contractor hired to raze the old hospital. An alcoholic bully with a short temper, he proves a volatile addition to the investigation when the police later consult him for his structural knowledge of the building. His engagement is just one of many cock-ups by the metropolitan police force as they charge through an investigation full of red herrings and a mounting body count.

Meanwhile, Hunter battles his own personal demons. He lives with the legacy of a failed knife attack by a psychotic woman who blamed him for her brother’s death. With her whereabouts still unaccounted for, she continues to pose a threat to his safety. Her presence lurks at the periphery, Hunter changing his behaviour to make him harder to track; parking his car in a different place every time he uses it and using different routes to get to work. With the help of friends, he has moved out of his home to live temporarily in a Ballard Court apartment. It is luxurious and austere, a soulless and impersonal security building. Hunter spends his time there reluctantly, feeling as if he’s trying to run away from his problems by being there. After his girlfriend leaves for a three-month work contract in Greece, he does anything to avoid spending too much time there on his own. He delays returning home, preferring to spend his hours at the morgue or at the crime scene. On one of his breaks he also wanders into the woods behind St Jude’s, where the ruins of a Norman church stand empty. Here he meets an old woman – Lola – who he takes pity on, and after another chance encounter a fragile friendship develops.

Already no good at down-time, he deals with his loneliness and increasing paranoia by burying himself in work. This is where the writing really comes alive, Beckett guiding us through the forensic science with meticulous detail; our protagonist spending much of the novel in coveralls, gloves, overshoes, hood and mask:

 … X-rays can only reveal so much. I needed to examine the unknown young woman’s bones in greater detail, a task more related to butchery than to science. First, as much of the remaining soft tissue as possible would have to be removed using shears and scalpels. Then the skeleton itself would have to be systematically disarticulated, by cutting through the connective cartilage and tendons at the joints. Skull from spine, arms from torso, legs from pelvis: all had to be carefully separated one from the other. Then, once the body had been reduced to its component parts, any residual soft tissue had to be removed by macerating the bones in warm water and detergent …  

The sixth offering in the series, The Scent of Death works just fine as a standalone novel, though if this is your first encounter with the inimitable Dr David Hunter, you’ll be hard-pressed to resist bingeing on the previous instalments.

Simon Beckett The Scent of Death Bantam 2019 PB 368pp $27.99

Louise Mentor is a screenwriter and script editor, co-writer of the feature film Pimped. Check it out here: You can connect with her on Twitter @LouMentor101

You can buy The Scent of Death from Abbey’s here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.