Years ago, before I threw caution to the winds and became a full time writer, I worked for a company who proclaimed themselves world leaders in phosphorus chemistry. They, too, relied on solidified bird droppings – the “Phosphate Rocks” of the book’s title – as their raw material. Fiona Erskine’s thriller says a great deal about this, and other little-known (but absolutely fascinating) facts about the industry. A slice of Scottish noir, it begins in true murder mystery fashion with the discovery of a dead body when a chemical works is demolished. Brisk young Detective Inspector Rose Irvine soon homes in on the one man who holds the key to the mystery: John Gibson, the former shift manager.
Literature meets chemistry
As Rose questions John however it becomes clear that “Phosphate Rocks” is much more than a simple police procedural story. The corpse, encased in a crust of phosphate, is surrounded by ten objects. When John identifies each item, pouring out his reminiscences in the process, we receive a sequence of chemistry lessons. Furthermore, John’s memories are a rich seam of social history. He tells Rose about canny men and glamorous women and a manufacturing environment decaying as much as the deliquescent corpse.
Layers of mystery
Although the mystery is solved, it’s a bitter-sweet victory. Too many other questions remain unanswered. Is Rose the orphaned child of good-time girl Polly, who ended up feeding the fishes? What became of the proud workmen thrown on the scrapheap when the factory closed, victims of head office accountants?
This is not a formulaic, stripped down style of book, but it is beautifully written. If you fancy a refreshingly different crime story, “Phosphate Rocks” delivers it.