The Chemical Code cover

Book review: ‘The Chemical Code’, by Fiona Erskine

Image credit: OneWorld

Latest instalment in the Jaq Silver series of engineering-themed novels is a genuine goldmine of a thriller.

There can’t be many characters in fiction who couldn’t care less about inheriting a goldmine. But Maria Jaqueline Ribeiro da Silva, protagonist of ‘The Chemical Code’ (Point Blank, £9.99, ISBN 9780861542031) has more important things on her mind. So pressing that they scarcely fade into the background even while being attacked and drugged by three goons in an agrochemical plant in São Paulo, Brazil. The henchmen unambiguously want to kill Jaq Silver, but she’s too smart for that. Recalling Shakespeare’s Hermia, though Jaq “be but little she is fierce”. And clever.

Too clever for these bruisers, as she employs her senses to outsmart them, navigating her way out of trouble by using the laws of physics, her encyclopaedic knowledge of the smells of improvised anaesthetics and processed sugar cane, while casually referring to intelligent sensors driving automatic valves, vacuum ejectors and flow-limiting safety devices.

The men on her trail, Silver tells us, are hunting for gold, but “I’m fighting for something much more precious”. In keeping with the raw materials of the Socobras complex, her assailants come to a sticky end. As ‘cold opens’ go, this scene-setting teaser to Fiona Erskine’s latest thriller is a nerdish riot. Welcome to volume four of the Jaq Silver sequence which, here at E&T, we’re almost tired of saying gets better with every additional instalment. ‘The Chemical Code is her best yet’.

In a story laced with clues, when it comes to Erskine’s literary development perhaps the most telling is on the dedication page where we discover that our author is the niece of Alison Selford, an extraordinary multilingual free-thinking novelist who in turn was the niece of Rebecca West. All of these women were ahead of their time, and so it should hardly come as any surprise that Erskine’s protagonist is a walking advertisement for intelligence and independence. We started off at book one by saying that Jaq Silver was like Lara Croft with a doctorate in chemical engineering. By the time we reach ‘The Chemical Code’ she is a fictional identity to be reckoned with in her own right. No need for comparisons any more.

The trouble with reviewing thrillers is that you can’t say too much about what actually happens other than in the broadest of terms. First, is that ‘The Chemical Code’ is a tale of vengeance, of setting wrongs to right, in which justice is the purpose. Second, as we find so often in the Jaq Silver universe, what she’s up against is a murky code stack of danger and corruption that needs to be solved line by line. Third, we are treated to a 21st-century reinterpretation of classic 007-style action, villainy, exotic location and pretzel plotting.

But there’s a compelling extra dimension for the discerning reader who enjoys a decent potboiler because, what with Erskine’s shamelessly ostentatious scientific knowledge, ‘The Chemical Code’ a goldmine of a thriller.

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