The Chemical Reaction by Fiona Erskine

Book review: ‘The Chemical Reaction’ by Fiona Erskine

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The engineer protagonist of Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller is back in a second page-turning adventure.

Hot on the heels of last year’s ‘The Chemical Detective’ comes the second in what every engineer must hope is going to be a long series of thrillers concerning the adventures of Jaq Silver, chemical engineer. If you enjoyed the Chernobyl-based first instalment then, in the words of the song, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”, because Fiona Erskine’s follow-up – ‘The Chemical Reaction’ (Point Blank, £14.99, ISBN 9781786077578) – is even better.

This time Jaq finds herself in hot water taking on a risky contract in China. But when one of her former students and the chemical factory she is meant to be investigating mysteriously disappear, she not unreasonably senses trouble in the air. And off we go again. Another Jaq Silver classic: fraudulent art auctions in London, a troupe of male strippers in Shanghai. It’s one great big complicated 400-plus page-turner.

Erskine is a clever writer in that she wields the tropes of the thriller genre with self-assurance, authorial purpose and a satisfying level of uber-geek thrown in for good measure. In the opening scene, when Jaq is at the helm of a yacht, trying to outrun a storm, we have all the usual adjectives of excitement that thriller writers sprinkle about like confetti, only laced with an allusion to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, so casual that you might easily miss it.

Then back to the action: as Jaq counts the seconds between the flash of lightning and the boom of thunder – “Speed of light 299,792,458 metres per second... speed of sound 343 metres per second” – she makes mental calculations, while the author still has time to observe Jaq’s Italian crewmate Giovanni’s fashion sense, whose plimsolls squeak on the teak decking of the Francium (radioactive element, atomic number 87). This kind of detail will delight and amuse the engineering reader.

Later in the novel, as Jaq tries to jailbreak a mobile phone, she works out how much time it would take to run the 1,000,000 combinations of six digits, before reminding herself that she only has a handful of attempts. And the ciphers based on the Periodic Table are terrific. Want to spell out ‘No Police’ in element symbols? You’ll need nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, oxygen again, lithium and cerium. A lengthy author’s note in the appendix even includes a graph containing the relative prices over time of rare-earth metal dysprosium compared with gold (as well as an explanation of the cultural phenomenon in rural China of hiring male strippers as entertainment at funerals). Erskine obviously enjoys writing this stuff.

The ‘no plot spoilers’ protocol means that I can’t tell you anything more about what goes on in the book. But what I can tell you is if you want a really decent and technologically robust thriller, the roller-coaster ride that is ‘The Chemical Reaction’ will leave you salivating in anticipation of the third episode in the adventures of Jaq Silver.

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