In Simon Beckett's "Whispers of the Dead," the narrator is forensic anthropologist Dr. David Hunter, who leaves London for a month-long stay in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is still scarred both physically and emotionally from stab wounds that he received at the hands of a madwoman. Unfortunately, David's life has been marred by a series of tragedies from which he has never fully recovered; he wonders if he still has what it takes to do his job effectively. To find out, he accepts the invitation of his former teacher, Tom Lieberman, who invites him to conduct research at the facility that he directs, the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center, better known as the Body Farm. This is an outdoor laboratory in which scientists examine human cadavers to learn more about decomposition and other factors pertaining to the time and cause of death.
If David had any illusions that this would be a relaxing vacation, he quickly learns otherwise. Not only is Tom clearly suffering from a debilitating heart condition, but David's old mentor is soon called in to assist in a homicide investigation. Tom wants to take advantage of David's expertise, but the law enforcement agents assigned to the case resent the Brit's presence and do whatever they can to exclude him. As the search for a monstrous fiend heats up, David is caught in the middle. To make matters worse, he misses his former girlfriend, Jenny, and is intensely lonely.
"Whispers of the Dead" is sinister and unnerving. There are enough gory scenes to turn the stomach of all but the most hardened reader, but the fascinating forensic details almost make it all worthwhile. Beckett describes the dead bodies, and there are quite a few of them, in such excruciating detail that we can almost smell the rotting flesh and visualize the maggots feeding on the corpses. Although the psychopath is another one of those weirdoes that we encounter time and again in novels of this type, his methods and motive are unique, and the author springs a number of surprises on us as the story progresses. This is an edgy and nightmarish thriller in which Beckett raises the suspense to an almost unbearable level before concluding with an explosive and violent finale. After his traumatic ordeal in Tennessee, Dr. David Hunter would do well to seek treatment from the best therapist in London.