Book Review

Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects by Fiona Erskine

As the old chemical works in Leith are demolished a long deceased body encrusted in phosphate rock is discovered. Seated at a card table he has ten objects laid out in front of him. Whose body is it? How did he die and what is the significance of the objects?

What a wonderfully unique novel this is! Ostensibly a mystery novel, Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects (Phosphate Rocks from here on in) presents the reader with an unusual puzzle to solve while also providing something of a beginner’s guide to chemistry.  It’s an unusual combination, but it works well with the science bringing the processes and the nature of the chemical works to life as we learn more about the individuals who work there.

As part of the demolition of Leith chemical works, a body is discovered. Alone, underground, and encased in phosphate, no one knows who it is nor how the body came to be there. Surrounded by ten unusual objects – objects that have no business whatsoever in the chemical works – the mystery is gradually revealed.  The main protagonist is John Gibson – a former foreman of the chemical works. Throughout the novel, John assists the police in their investigation, examining each object in turn and revealing the history and meaning behind each one, gradually narrowing down who the unfortunate individual is while the police wait on the forensics, that aspect of the investigation made more difficult by the phosphate encasing the body. 

In exploring the meaning of each object, John provides the reader and the police with the history of the chemical works and the assorted characters working there.  Each of these stories is fascinating – as is the tale behind each object – and while there are some characters who are more likeable than others, each is wonderfully idiosyncratic, and it makes this an engaging read as we learn more about them.  And throughout, the reader can’t help but wonder who the person is, and I became fully invested in finding out.

Throughout all of this, Erskine also highlights the chemistry involved in the processes at the chemical works.  We learn more about the elements, reactions, and processes involved as well as the history behind the science and the scientists who were key in isolating and identifying those elements and how the processes developed over time.  It shouldn’t be as fascinating as it is, but Erskine delivers this detail in an utterly engaging way – making it easy to understand and providing a deft touch of humour to what might otherwise be quite a dry topic in the context of a work of fiction. 

Some of the inspiration for this novel comes from real people and events – John Gibson was Erskine’s mentor for a time, and it seems clear that she holds him in high esteem.  In the novel, he’s presented as a sympathetic character – not perfect by any stretch, but he seems like the sort of person that it would be good to work for (provided you were pulling your weight) and someone from whom you would learn a great deal.  And he’s loyal to those who’ve earned it, keeping their secrets where possible whilst assisting the police with their investigation.  The narrative doesn’t really focus on John himself, but we do learn more about him as he reveals the tale behind each of the ten objects found with the body.

Phosphate Rocks (I do love a title with dual meaning!) is a wonderfully original novel.  It highlights the changing times as production became more automated, and the impact that this had on local communities, many of which built up around the manufacturing plants not just in Leith, but countrywide.  We see the way in which attitudes have shifted over time – something that Erskine knows well having often been the only female in the room during her career as an engineer.  Above all, it’s an intriguing and original mystery, told with warmth and humour and the rather unusual ingredient of scientific background which both brings it life and sets it apart.  Highly recommended if you’re looking for something a little different to the norm.

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