The word ‘detective’ in this thriller’s title is more than a little bit misleading. Great title, but this isn’t a cosy crime, Sherlock-style sleuth story. Nope; imagine the Da Vinci Code with explosives instead of artwork and an industrial chemist replacing the academic art historian. Or think of any of the Ludlum thrillers in which the professional protagonist discovers a nefarious global conspiracy; is neatly framed by the nefarious bad guys, and goes on the run to reveal the nefarious truth and save his professional ass. That’s pretty much what you’ve got here…
…except that he is a she, and a pretty convincing polymath she certainly is. Dr Silver is smart, assertive, a little short on people skills and very long on accomplishment. She’s multilingual, an excellent skier, published research scientist, superb swimmer and a skilled motorcyclist with a sharp eye for a well-filled pair of ski pants. I would say that you don’t get too many women of that type but in fact I know several – and author Fiona Erskine wisely steers Dr Silver away from improbable feats of physical prowess in the hand to hand combat dept.
Instead we get a very clever expose of an all too plausible situation, one which rings big bells in today’s unstable geopolitical situation. Silver is bounced back and forth from Slovenia to Teeside, from the Lake District to Belarus, following a deadly chemical trail. She uncovers corporate corruption, board-level complicity, bad guys called Boris who inevitably attempt to kill her, handsome ski instructors who might just be too good to be true – and multiple missing people who asked too many awkward questions.
I massively enjoyed the minor detours – actually pivotal to the plot – into the world of explosives, isotopes and physical chemistry. Erskine makes the science a central strand of the story, and the scene in which Silver calculates the physics of falling from a cliff immediately became one of my all-time faves.
The nefarious dudes were a little less convincing, to be honest. The corporate slimeball rang every single sleazebag bell in the male chauvinist pig handbook and he would have been more credible, to me, if he were a little less obviously awful and a bit more insidiously attractive… in the way that slippery, sociopathic CEOs can be. Bad boy Boris was a bit overplayed, too.
This is also quite a long novel and I felt it was sagging somewhat around two-thirds of the way through. A couple of the setbacks and switch backs felt surplus to requirements; there was a bit of Bourne-esque running on the spot when I was keen to cut the chase and get to the rewarding bit of the reveal.
The ending was entirely satisfying, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dr Silver. She should probably be recruited to some WMD-seeking NATO or UN taskforce for a future adventure – and if she is then I’ll definitely hit the download button.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Chemical Detective by Fiona Erskine is available at Amazon