Publishing, like television and film, likes a trend. Psychological thrillers are the big thing at the moment in crime fiction, following the success of books like The Girl on the Train. But a smaller, though no less vibrant, trend of high-octane, global spanning and high-concept thrillers was sparked by Terry Hayes novel I Am Pilgrim. This continues to bubble away with authors James Swallow and Greg Hurwitz writing novels of this sub-genre. Joining them now come’s Fiona Erskine, with her novel The Chemical Detective.

Dr Jaq Silver is a chemical engineer working in Slovenia for Snow Science, a research institute that amongst other things does avalanche control. She’s an explosives expert and a daredevil, as comfortable blowing things up as she is skiing and jumping into bed with men half her age. She came to Snow Science under something of a cloud, however, having previously worked for a chemical plant in Teeside, England, where a number of workers died. She got the blame and while was never charged has faced civil action form the workers’ families.

Jaq is trying to forget this and knuckle down in her new career, but she stumbles upon an odd consignment of explosives sent to Snow Science from her old company. When she starts to investigate, samples go missing and her boss obstructs her. It isn’t long before things go pear-shaped and she’s framed with murder with no choice but to go on the run. So sparks an international game of cat and mouse as Jaq tries to clear her name, investigate the conspiracy she’s stumbled upon, avoid the bad guys intent on killing her, all the while unsure as to who she can trust.

There’s much to like about The Chemical Detective. The author herself is a chemical engineer and imbues her novel with her expertise. This is all down adroitly and reading this book I learnt a thing or two about explosives, chemical weapons, radiation and nuclear energy. The plot is current dealing as it does with Weapons of Mass Destruction and proliferation, a big bogeyman for the international community and law enforcement. Jaq Silver is a compelling character, a female protagonist not without her faults, but likeable and capable without being an unrealistic superhero. Much of the supporting cast is equally well developed. The antagonists were equally good, the character known as The Spider being particularly chilling.

At the end of the novel, the author discusses how long it took her to write the novel – a first draft relatively quickly followed by years of editing – which mirrors my own experiences and her candour in this regard made me warm to her and her writing even more. She hints that this is the first outing for Dr Jaq Silver and that she has further tales for her protagonist. I hope so as it will be good to see how the character develops.

An intelligent yet fast moving and exciting thriller, The Chemical Detective is a compelling debut.

James Pierson 4/4

The Chemical Detective by Fiona Erskine
Point Blank 9781786074928 hbk Apr 2019