"Phosphate Rocks" by Fiona Erskine offers the reader two quite different books for the price of one, being a pacy murder mystery which also offers a fascinating insight into the workings of an industrial plant and the chemistry behind the processes involved. Not the most likely or enticing hook to a review? I suggest you read on…
Set in Edinburgh, taking in locations which will be familiar to those who know the city, but no less enjoyable for those who don't, the story which unfolds relates to the finding of a mummified body encased within phosphate rock during the demolition of a former fertiliser factory in Leith. The body is not immediately recognisable, so all the police have to go on is a collection of ten objects that are found with it.
Enter John Gibson, former shift supervisor at the plant, whose first knowledge of the death is when he is called to a meeting with Detective Inspector Rose Irvine at Torphichen Street police station. John knows everything there is to know about the fertiliser plant and remembers everyone who worked there, whether on his shift or not. He is as bemused as the detective inspector as to whose the body might be, but as he begins a detailed analysis of the ten objects, by a process of elimination John narrows down the likely year of the death and is finally able to reveal the victim.
The story that emerges presents the human side of a production process that will crinkle the noses of most of us, but turns out to be fascinating. Fiona Erskine, an engineer and former employee at the factory, weaves her knowledge of the chemistry involved in making fertilisers around the lives of the workforce. Through the real character of John Gibson, she provides a rich narrative alongside the more formal textbook approach, but the two blend together beautifully. The reader is taken inside the factory and gets to know the people there and learns about the complexity of the processes they are engaged in. The individuals we meet have their real lives played out against the backdrop of the factory and there is a real poignancy in the telling of their stories and the reader’s engagement with them.