In his accomplished follow-up to his best-selling debut THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH, Simon Beckett sends his protagonist, forensic archaeologist David Hunter, to the remote Scottish island of Ruma. When a burnt corpse is discovered in an isolated hut, the mainland police are informed, as there is no police presence on the island itself. But Superintendent Graham Wallace has too much on his plate to investigate, as he is coping with a train crash that might be the result of terrorism, so he asks David to travel to Ruma and to let him know if the death was suspicious. The body was discovered by Andrew Brody, an ex-police detective who has taken early retirement and gone to live on the island. Because Brody is retired, Wallace isn't keen to use his services officially, and instead sends the boorish Sergeant Fraser and a young rookie, Duncan, to accompany David for his examination of the corpse. David and Fraser meet several key characters on the ferry crossing to Ruma, followed up by a few more at the local hotel after they arrive.
David wants to get on with his task so that he can return to London and his girlfriend Jenny, who is not happy about the length of David's absence or his workaholism. But before David can get too far with his investigation, a severe storm hits the island, which causes all kinds of havoc, not least delaying the much-needed police reinforcements from the mainland.
I've read many crime-fiction stories set in remote spots in order for the authors to conveniently isolate a small group of suspects from the rest of society, and where the reader can have fun trying to stay a step ahead of the detective. WRITTEN IN BONE is extremely effective in this regard – David, Brody and Fraser find themselves increasingly isolated and in danger, as more people are killed, buildings are set on fire, and the storm (as well as a human hand) wrecks communication channels. The suspects include a young South African millionaire and his stunning wife – a childless couple who spend their time doing good works and stimulating the island's economy. Other characters include Maggie, a keen but green young journalist; Ellen, the supportive owner of the hotel, who has her own worries; and various suspicious, inward-looking locals who don't take kindly to what they see as outside interference.
An atmosphere of unease and seething resentment is ably conveyed, in which Brody and David struggle to keep the investigation on an even keel – not helped by Fraser's drinking and habit of blurting out confidential information to the wrong people. WRITTEN IN BONE is superbly and tightly plotted and proceeds at a thrilling pace. It really is a page-turner. My only small caveat is an occasional heavy-handedness: twice, for example, characters hint to David that they know something significant, but on both occasions are killed before they can reveal any clues. This is only a minor gripe – the book as a whole is an assured account, with the forensic details seeming authentic and unflinching, but not dwelling unnecessarily on the grim details. I knew I'd got the identity of the villain wrong when David reaches the same conclusion too easily. Sure enough, not one but three major twists follow. The middle one of these did not seem to hang together that well, but the first and last are satisfyingly shocking – and we are now on a cliffhanger until the next book in the series. I hope we don't have to wait too long to read it.