The Chemical Reaction by Fiona Erskine is currently available in eBook format and due to be published in hardback on 16th April.
It sees the welcome return of explosives expert Dr Jaq Silver following on from her previous exploits in The Chemical Detective. Having escaped near death in Chernobyl, we left Jaq on an un-seaworthy yacht in the middle of the Black Sea. Now we find her facing her old nemesis Frank Good in China.
But how did Fiona come to create such an intrepid female lead?
In my day job, I run an international company with activities in over forty countries. In the past I’ve turned rock into fertilizer, recycled solvents, recovered precious metals, brought medicines to market, made amazing new polymers, demolished factories and directed international construction projects.
The work means global travel, and if you live in airports, you have to have a book to hand. I love a good thriller, but the lack of believable women heroes is infuriating. Why aren’t they out there, solving mysteries and saving the world? Where is the female Bourne, Reacher, MacGuyver or Bond?
Well, I got sick of wondering and hoping, and decided to write the stories that I wanted to read.
Allow me to flip my hard hat, kick off my work boots and introduce you to Jaq Silver, a whizz with explosives, using her brain where others use brawn, blowing things up to keep people safe.
This was exactly what Jenny Parrott, publishing director of Point Blank was looking for when they bought the UK and Commonwealth rights for two thrillers by Fiona. Parrott said: “I’ve been looking for a while for a woman-in-a-man’s-world thriller, and so was delighted to read Fiona’s debut. In real life Fiona is herself a chemical engineer, and so she knows all too well what it’s like to be a woman outnumbered and far from home.”
When I read The Chemical Detective, I came away thinking Jaq Silver could certainly give Bourne, Reacher et al. a run for their money. When I first had to describe Jaq my first were that she was a mash up of Lara Croft and James Bond. In the case of the latter it was more for her penchant for younger attractive partners. Swap ‘Bond Girls’ for ‘Silver Boys’ and you get the idea. Fiona has the following to say on the subject of the Bond analogies.
A Female James Bond?
Commander James Bond, the character created by Ian Fleming, was definitely a man. A dull man, a blunt instrument, darkly handsome with a cruel mouth. Leaving the Navy, having served in the second world war, he becomes a secret service agent: 007 – licenced to kill. Perennially in his thirties, he never ages as he drinks, smokes, spies, womanises, fights and murders.
The film version of James Bond reached the apogee of perfection in Daniel Craig. Strong, silent and ruthlessly efficient he is a man of few words, in control of his emotions. Scar tissue has formed a carapace around his heart. But for the right woman, he will risk everything.
Dr Jacqueline Silver is most definitely not the new James Bond. She hates guns. She’s not an employee of a government agency or a snob and she doesn’t hold racist or homophobic views. A reluctant hero forced into action in a search for truth, Jaq retains her integrity. A different hero, every bit as smart and sexy, fit and capable. A warrior for justice with emotions and feelings and a moral compass.
But she does attract Bond boys. What are Bond boys? The male equivalent of Bond girls.
Bond girls are sometimes antagonists – working for the enemy, sometimes wronged and vulnerable damsels in distress, they conform to a type: younger than Bond – between 18 and 30, always beautiful, often athletic, usually sexually experienced .
Despite the nudge-nudge-wink-wink names like Pussy Galore and Honey Rider, Plenty O’Toole, Xenia Onatopp, or Holly Goodhead, these are strong feisty women, independent professionals, often criminals, who are conquered by the charm of Commander Bond.
The Bond girls often die young in tragic situations.
Bond girls are decorative and disposable. Part of my revenge was to have a few decorative and disposable male characters.
Men who are young, beautiful, athletic. sexually experienced, determinedly masculine but in touch with their feminine side.
Just as Bond girls have jobs and skills that were unusual for women in their time (pilot, spy, criminal mastermind), Bond boys are skilful in traditionally female areas: rustling up delicious food from simple ingredients, keeping their surroundings ship-shape – cleaning the bathroom and hanging up clothes.
Oh, and driven to provide mind blowing sexual satisfaction to their partner ahead of their own needs.
Jaq Silver may not be a female James Bond, but she has definitely encountered some Bond boys.
Karel Zizek, Petr Pavluk, Giovanni Fantucci, Timur Zolotoy…
Will they die young in tragic situations? Or will they survive to love again?
An extract from The Chemical Reaction
As Jaq waited at the station for the Eaglescliffe train, she checked her phone. Three missed calls and two voicemails. A message … inviting her to spend Christmas in Coniston. Jaq smiled and shook her head. Simultaneously a very lovely and a very bad idea. A briefer message from her mother’s care home, asking her when she planned to make the next payment.
On the opposite platform, the London train pulled out of the station, heading north to Inverness. From Aberdeen it was an overnight ferry to Shetland. And as soon as she finished this bizarre China contract, that was where she was headed.
Jaq pulled the Shetland hat over her ears and wished she was already there.
On the platform opposite her, a young man stood still. The wind whipped his long hair into writhing red snakes, and he stopped to gather it into a band. As he lifted his head, the red curls now secured in a topknot, he looked directly across the tracks. He hefted his large sports bag and moved towards her like a gymnast, his movements controlled, precise, almost languid.
Beauty is a powerful tonic. You know it when you see it, and sometimes it is uplifting to soak it in. A displacement activity, watching this young Adonis with his perfect physique on his way to a date with some lucky partner, she followed his progress towards the subway and reappearing on her platform, striding towards the exit and the footbridge that led into town.
She couldn’t control her response, it was a chemical reaction: phenylalanine to tyrosine to levodopa to dopamine to norepinephrine. The neurotransmitters increasing her heart rate and blood pressure, triggering the release of glucose from energy stores.
As he drew level, striking hazel eyes found hers. He smiled and she looked away, embarrassed to have been caught staring.
What was she playing at? He was far too young for her. And students were always off limits, even now she was no longer a university lecturer.
Once he was out of sight, Jaq called Vikram to ask when she would be paid.
Just like her jet setting male counterparts Jaq Silver certainly gets around the globe as well. But the locations of the books are carefully chosen and tie in with Fiona’s background. Fiona has a particular interest in industrial accidents “because unless we can understand exactly how and why they happened, we risk allowing history to repeat itself”. Consequently each of the books in the Jaq Silver series has a man-made disaster at its core.
Chernobyl (The Chemical Dectective)
Chernobyl was the site of the nuclear disaster that many of us will remember well. Speaking of the site (which Fiona has since had the opportunity to visit) she said,
I had no burning desire to visit the site of the worst known nuclear accident. Not for fear of radiation – few places have better controls in place for visitors—and certainly not for lack of curiosity; I have researched the 1986 accident in detail, written about it in summary and pored over the texts, films and photographs of others.
But visiting nuclear power plants – functioning or dormant — is always disappointing. Everything of interest is hidden away. The containment shields the visitor both from harm and illumination.
However, Dr Jaq Silver–the protagonist in my first novel The Chemical Detective—is a wilful individual and, despite my best efforts to keep her safe, chose to spend time poking around in the Polissia near Chornobyl (the Ukrainian name which replaces the Russian Chernobyl).
You can read more about Chernobyl here
Banqiao (The Chemical Reaction)
While Fiona has visited, lived or worked in most of the locations in The Chemical Reaction, it is the disaster of the Banqiao hydroelectric dam that forms the focus of the mystery. You can read about her visit to the Banqiao Dam in Henan Province, China here.
On 8th of August 1975, about one hour after midnight, the Banqiao dam collapsed.
An estimated 230,000 people drowned that night. Communications were lost, road and rail links destroyed, the relief effort was late and inadequate, and many more people died of disease and starvation. Some estimates put the final death toll at 1 million people. By any reckoning, it remains the deadliest structural failure of all time.
What went wrong?
The clay dam, 24.5m high, was started in 1951 and completed in 1952. Chen Xing, a hydrologist involved in the design, recommended 12 sluice gates. He was removed from the project and only 5 were installed. Cracks and leaks appeared due to shoddy construction and Soviet engineers were brought in to strengthen the damn. Hailed as the iron dam, it was considered unbreakable.
In 1961 Chen Xing was brought back and repeated his warnings about the design. His outspoken criticism was too much for the authorities and he was again removed from the project.
In 1975 typhoon Nina struck, and a year’s worth of rain fell in one day. The damn breached and 700 million cubic metres of water were released in six hours. A total of 30 dams failed downstream, one after another, like dominoes.
The initial breach was 300m wide. The danger came as it spread. By the time the water reached Suiping, ten miles from the dam, it had turned into a tidal wave of water 10km wide, 5-9m high and travelling at up to 50km per hour racing across the flat land, demolishing everything in its wake. It tore up roads and bridges. Whole villages were swept away taking families as they slept
Those who survived the deluge might have wished they hadn’t. Telecommunication with the outside world was destroyed along with road or rail access in or out of the area. Anything edible had been spoiled. And the calm water that now surrounded the survivors proved every bit as deadly as the wave that brought it. With even the most conservative estimate putting the immediate death toll at 26,000, the flood water was now full of bloated, rotting corpses. The relief effort was too little and too late. It is estimated that as many as 11 million people were displaced, many dying of famine and disease.
In the affected area, few children under the age of ten survived. When the primary school in one of the villages reopened, there were only 3 children left from a class of 300.
So hopefully this has whetted your appetite to return to, or discover the thrilling and definitely explosive world of Dr Jaq Silver. Having been surprised at how much I loved The Chemical Detective, purely because I mistakenly thought it wasn’t my ‘genre’, I know I can’t wait.
If you also want to discover more about Fiona, you can catch her Five on Friday feature here.
As Jaq is pulled further into a murky underworld of deceit and corruption, things take an explosive turn… After escaping almost certain death amidst the ruins of Chernobyl, Jaq finds herself in even hotter water.
Deep in debt, she decides to take on a risky contract in China.
But when her former student and the chemical factory she was meant to be investigating both mysteriously disappear, she realises nothing is as it seems. From fraudulent art auctions in London to a troupe of male strippers in Shanghai, the mystery of the vanishing factory begins to look ever more complicated as the days pass.
Can Jaq work out what happened – and whether it has anything to do with her nemesis Frank Good – before time runs out?
Dr Jaq Silver. Skier, scientist, international jet-setter, explosives expert.
She blows things up to keep people safe. Working on avalanche control in Slovenia, Jaq stumbles across a problem with a consignment of explosives.
After raising a complaint with the supplier, a multinational chemical company, her evidence disappears and she is framed for murder.
Jaq must find the key to the mystery. But can she uncover the truth before her time runs out?