The Scent of Death
Most people assume they’d know the scent of death. That decay has a distinctive, readily
identifiable odour, a foul reek of the grave.
Decay is a complicated process. For a once-living organism to become skeletonized,
reduced to dry bone and minerals, it first has to undergo an intricate biochemical journey.
While some of the gases created are offensive to human senses, they’re only part of the
olfactory menu. Decomposing flesh can produce hundreds of volatile organic compounds,
each with its own characteristics. Many of them – particularly those created during the mid stages
of a body’s dissolution, those of putrefaction and bloat – possess an undeniable stench.
Dimethyl trisulphide, for instance, is reminiscent of rotting cabbage. Butyric acid and
trimethylamine have the respective bouquets of vomit and old fish. Another substance,
indole, carries the stink of faecal matter.
Yet in lower concentrations indole has a delicate, floral scent that’s prized by perfume
manufacturers. Hexanal, a gas produced in both the early and later stages of decay, resembles
freshly cut grass, while butanol is redolent of fallen leaves.
The aroma of decomposition can encompass all these notes, as complex as a fine
wine. And, because death is nothing if not full of surprises, in some circumstances it can
announce itself in a different manner entirely.
Sometimes in a way you’d least expect.
It’s been a good summer for forensics expert Dr David Hunter. His relationship is going well and he’s in demand again as a police consultant. Life is good.
Then a call comes from an old associate: a body has been found, and she’d like Hunter to take a look.
The empty shell of St Jude’s Hospital now stands awaiting demolition, its only visitors society’s outcasts, addicts and dealers. A partially mummified corpse has been discovered in the hospital’s cavernous loft, but not even Hunter can say how long it’s been there. All he knows for sure is that it’s a young woman. And that she was pregnant.
Then the collapse of the loft floor reveals another of the hospital’s secrets. A sealed-off chamber, with beds still inside. Some of them occupied…
For Hunter, what began as a straightforward case is about to become a twisted nightmare that threatens everyone around him. And as the investigation springs yet more surprises, only one thing is certain.
St Jude’s hasn’t claimed its last victim…