The Chemical Detective By Fiona Erskine — Review
A fast-paced thriller about a chemical engineer working in avalanche control in Slovenia who unwittingly gets caught up in the illegal global trade in chemical weapons
Wouldn’t you like to read an action thriller that features a strong yet credible female scientist as its protagonist? Well, look no further because Fiona Erskine’s debut novel, The Chemical Detective (Point Blank; 2019: Amazon US / Amazon UK) delivers.
The central character, Jacqueline Silver, is a chemical engineer who works for a research center, Snow Science, in Slovenia. She studies artificial glaciers and works to keep people safe using her expertise with explosives to manage avalanches. So when a consignment of explosives is delivered with inaccurate paperwork, Jaq reports this to her boss, who dismisses her concerns. Confused and suspicious, Jaq does what any competent professional would do: she takes samples and investigates. After the shipment mysteriously disappears, she takes her concerns to corporate headquarters in Britain. But instead of rewarding her diligence, she is attacked by her employer who openly questions her mental health, accuses her of professional incompetence and then falsely blames her for an explosion at the research center before suspending her from her job. But even after all that pushback, Jaq continues to investigate the matter, and ends up narrowly escaping death before she is framed for murder.
Jaq ends up on the run from the Slovenian and British police. She travels from the snowy Slovenian Alps to the bleakness of England’s Lake District, to other locations in Europe — and even to the devastation of the Chernobyl exclusion zone — all places where the author has lived and worked so you feel like you are right there alongside Jaq as she searches for clues into the illegal global trade in chemical weapons.
Science is woven throughout the novel, and the explanations of explosives, isotopes, and gravity provide the reader with important insights into the satisfyingly convoluted plot. The author, Fiona Erskine, is a chemical engineer herself so she writes about these science-y topics with an easy authority that makes them accessible to anyone.
Jaq is a charismatic and multi-faceted character with a complicated personal and professional background and a weakness for younger men. She is tenacious and intelligent, and despite being completely unprepared for what happens in the book, and being disbelieved by everyone, she simply does her best to make things right. In short, she’s likeable and real instead being portrayed as some sort of invincible action superhero.
In contrast, I didn’t much like the villains. In my opinion, they were too perfectly evil, and too one-dimensional. I also found the chapters devoted to following the CEO of a shady chemical company, Frank Good, and his shenanigans as a ruthless corporate player to be rather tedious.
Shortlisted for the Best Debut Crime Novel of 2020 by SpecSavers, this novel is entertaining and engaging. Although this fast-paced action thriller is rather far-fetched in places, it has a realistic premise and it untangles the story with just the right blend of suspense and tension, and with the added bonus of fascinating locations that will especially satisfy those suffering from cabin-fever. You’ll also learn a little about chemistry, chemical weapons, Chernobyl, the Russian derivation for engineer, and what makes the sea smell like, well, the sea.
I recommend this original and compelling debut novel for fans of mysteries and thrillers, as well as for those looking for a credible female protagonist in a genre dominated by male superheroes. Already, I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in this series.
NOTE: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. Additionally, as an Amazon Associate, I earn micropayments from qualifying Amazon purchases made through links in this piece.
Originally published at Forbes on 23 July 2020.