The challenge with any book series is to keep existing fans happy while appealing to new readers. Crucially, new readers need to be able to join the series at any point without feeling that they need to start at book one for the story to make sense—essentially each book needs to work as a standalone. Simon Beckett is an author managing this tricky feat, his crime series featuring forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter reaches book number four with The Calling of the Grave (February, Bantam Press) and, based on the average weekly sale of the first three titles through Nielsen BookScan, he is gaining new readers with each new instalment.
The Calling of the Grave opens with a flashback. Dr Hunter is part of the forensics team called in when a body is found buried on Dartmoor, believed to be a victim of Jerome Monk, a psychotic multiple murderer already behind bars. But eight years later Monk escapes, and appears to be hunting down all those who were part of the original investigation. But absolutely nothing is as it seems, and Beckett skilfully engineers plot twist after plot twist interwoven with the meticulously researched forensic science. Beckett, softly spoken with a Sheffield accent, explains: "It's important to me that the books are seen as stories about a character who is a forensic anthropologist rather than about forensic anthropology."
Beckett has tackled new ground in each book, both in terms of setting—earlier locations include the Norfolk fens and a remote Hebridean island—and also different aspects of forensics. As Beckett says: "You don't want to repeat yourself. So in each book there's got to be elements that people come back to, but you want a sense of development in each one. David Hunter's life isn't static, each book needs to feel like there's some sort of progression going on but you've got to retain the same things that people enjoyed in the first place." Beckett is also gradually revealing more of David Hunter's mysterious past as the series progresses: "I like the idea that readers get to know him a little bit more [with each book] . . his past is very painful for him so it's not necessarily something he wants to revisit all the time."
Beckett started writing back in 1987 while he was teaching English in Spain. He returned to Sheffield and spent the late 1980s trying, and failing, to get a publishing deal. While the rejection slips were piling up Beckett decided to try his hand at freelance journalism. Although he had no formal training his first commission, which he describes as "a lucky break" was to interview Paula Yates. Beckett confesses initially he had no idea how to pitch stories: "I didn't even have a phone so I'd get a stack of change and go out to a phone box with a notebook full of numbers." But as his journalism took off, so did his career as a novelist. Of his early work he says, "At the time I didn't think it was crime writing. It was 'dark', people killed people in it but for some reason I didn't think of myself as a crime writer. When I eventually got published and they said they were going to publish it as crime fiction, I was quite surprised." His début, Fine Lines, was published by Allison & Busby (1994), followed by three more novels but sales were not great and by the late 1990s he was working as a journalist full-time.
It was a commission from the Daily Telegraph magazine in 2002 that revitalised his career as a novelist. He was sent to Tennessee and shadowed a group of police officers at the 'Body Farm' as they learned first hand about the decomposition of human remains. After he'd written the article the idea for a novel featuring a forensic anthropologist took hold: "It wasn't quite a eureka moment where everything was fully formed but it was a bizarre experience and I knew there was something there." Beckett adds that he had always wanted to write about "a really frightening serial killer" and a novel that could "really surprise and shock and frighten people". It took him about a year to develop his ideas into the novel that became The Chemistry of Death, the first in the Dr David Hunter series.
Beckett, who in 2009 was better represented in European bestseller charts than any other Brit, says the series is getting harder to write as it goes on "which when I'm looking at it objectively is probably a good thing. I don't want to freewheel—I think the more you put in, the more the reader can get out of it. So I think if I were finding it [writing] easy then it might not be altogether a good thing," he pauses. "For the books anyway."