Review

Written in Bone

by Simon Beckett

Simon Beckett’s second novel, WRITTEN IN BONE, stars
forensic anthropologist David Hunter. The book is set in the Outer
Hebrides, one of the most remote archipelagos off the northwest
coast of Scotland. Hunter is “asked” to go to the
island of Runa, to investigate “… a report of [an
especially gruesome] fire death in the Western Isles.” His
superior tells him “it might be a suicide, but more likely to
be a drunk or vagrant who fell asleep too close to a campfire [set]
in an abandoned croft.” He had been on his way home, to see
his girlfriend Jenny, but after listening to the little-known
details of the case, his curiosity won out against protecting his
love life and he changed his plans.

As is true of tightly knit, remote and isolated communities, Dr.
Hunter is not made welcome by the locals. They are hostile to and
suspicious of incomers, especially those who are going to poke into
their secrets. But once word gets around that “There was
precious little left of what once had been a living person,”
curiosity softens Hunter’s initial reception. When he is
taken to the isolated hut where “it” is, he finds a
black lump totally unidentifiable, which means that determining the
cause of death will not be easy. Suddenly, the horrific scene takes
on a stunning complexion when appendages are found in perfect
condition.

The investigation team includes Hunter; Sgt. Fraser, an irascible,
bitter man; Andrew Brody, a retired inspector; and a young,
inexperienced PC named McKinney, who chooses to be called Duncan.
The jealousies between Fraser and Brody, mixed with the tensions
between the islanders, are disturbing and at times interfere with
the work Hunter must do.

Into the mix comes Maggie Cassidy, a young ambitious reporter in
search of a front-page story. Her persistence to be a witness to
the goings-on haunts the investigators. She was born on the island
and is visiting her “gran,” but that doesn’t slow
down her annoying presence where she doesn’t belong. The Runa
Hotel is the only accommodation on the island and is run by Ellen
McLeod. Though she serves hearty meals, the bar is where the men
gather at every opportunity. Tensions run high here too, especially
when some of them drink too much.

Runa is in the path of bone-chilling arctic cold. Sharp winds and
pelting rain swing off the Atlantic, casting a pall over everything
and everyone. This doesn’t help dispositions or business.
Hunter is especially depressed about all of the circumstances
surrounding this assignment, and he especially misses Jenny. The
only place the burned body can be moved to is “the medical
clinic…[which] was little more than a small extension tacked
on to one end of the community center.” Nevertheless, the
facility was “well equipped, with pristine white walls and
shining steel cabinets. There was an autoclave…a well-stocked
medicine cabinet and a fridge. Best of all…[from
Hunter’s] point of view, was the large stainless steel
trolley and powerful halogen lamp. There was even a large
magnifying lens.”

The islanders get no relief from the storm, and soon more bodies
ruin the landscape. Is a serial killer on the island? Why did the
killing begin now? Is someone from the island responsible for the
murders? With the temperature dropping and the rain falling in
sheets, coupled with short tempers, nothing good can come from any
of this.

Simon Beckett clearly has not suffered from the “second novel
slump.” His writing is strong, his characters are alive, the
atmosphere limned so readers can almost feel the cold, and his plot
is a fast-paced pleasure to read. The story is strong, but the
ending is a WOW! I doubt that most readers will figure it out
before they turn the last page. And it’s well worth the
journey getting there.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 24, 2011

Written in Bone
by Simon Beckett

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385340052
  • ISBN-13: 9780385340052