White phosphate crystals

Book review: ‘Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects’ by Fiona Erskine

Image credit: Jiri Vaclavek/Dreamstime

Mystery with a scientific slant from the author behind the Chemical Detective series of novels.

For those who believe there’s not enough fiction out there written by engineers for engineers, the emergence a few years ago of E&T’s favourite novelist Fiona Erskine was something of a breath of fresh air. Her two ‘Chemical Detective’ novels, released in rapid succession, introduced a new folk heroine to our world in the form of the irresistible Jaq Silver, whose international crime-busting antics drew on every molecule of her encyclopaedically nerdish knowledge of chemistry, as well as something of a Lara Croft-ish approach to all things cloak-and-dagger.

While aficionados of Erskine’s work hotly await the third instalment of her Jaq Silver series, they will possibly be frustrated that her latest offering – ‘Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects’ (Sandstone Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781913207526) – is a departure from the Chemical Detective universe. But they can rest assured that we remain in the same capable hands in this standalone novel that bristles with a similar sort of scientific imagination.

Interestingly, Erskine says at the beginning of ‘Rocks’ that she’s taking a break from fiction “to write down some true stories of my professional life”, which you can take at face value if you like. But because it’s Erskine, we all know she’s up to something, especially as she contradicts herself, spending much of the introduction informing the reader how little of what follows is true. The ‘unreliable narrator’ goes back at least as far as Chaucer, and it’s a trope of the mystery thriller genre she embraces with a certain amount of glee, mixing it up with nothing being what it seems to be.

So what have we got? The answer is that we have nothing short of a good old-fashioned mystery on our hands when a mummified corpse encrusted in phosphate dust comes to light while the old chemical works (that Erskine once worked in) is being demolished. Seated at a card table, the deceased has ten objects in front of him, inviting us to unravel: first, who it is; second, how he met his fate, and third, what these objects mean. Which is harmlessly disturbing in an Agatha Christie sort of way, until you read, buried on page 243: “All – except one – of the events … took place during my working life as a chemical engineer, although not necessarily in the same place, to the same people or in the same order…”

There’s plenty of creepy, noirish stuff to get to grips with, and because Erskine is an ‘educated smart arse’ (her words), we have lots of the sort of chemistry clever-cloggery we’ve come to expect from her (which might just be the only objectively ‘true’ material in the book), as well as appendixes swollen with impenetrable equations and notes about obscure scientists. All of which confirms Erskine as quite possibly the best mystery novelist ever to have taken up the quill in the name of chemistry.

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