An Air That Kills (2019) by Christine Poulson

I very much enjoyed the partially-Antarctic set Cold, Cold Heart (2017); the second book in Christine’s Dr Katie Flanagan series, so I was really looking forward to reading the third. Apologies for the tardiness of this review, but my goats have been busy having their kids in the last two days, (expect my June Book of the Month post to be a cuteness overload).

Today’s read commences with Katie having returned home to England after her time in Antarctica and we witness the difficulties she has adjusting back to normal life. She also has to catch up with changes that have occurred in the lives of her friends, and it is through this catching up process that she learns about Lyle’s concerns. Lyle is an old boss and friend who funds scientific research and one of his more philanthropic endeavours has been to sponsor some research into influenza and how it can jump the species barrier. Yet he is worried about the results the project has been getting – they’re just too good to be true. Added to which the postdoc, Claudia Carter, who has been conducting the experiments, has had a high turnover of technicians. Why do they all keep leaving?

Eager for the next challenge Katie leaps at the chance to go undercover and see what is going on at the research base, which is on a tidal island off the coast of Devon. But little does Katie realise what she is letting herself in for… Unlike Katie, the reader is aware of murderous intent on the island. Early on, despite not knowing who they are, we are shown their preparation for murder, which involves malaria carrying mosquitos. But who is the victim going to be? And why are they so intent on killing them? And of course, will Katie figure out what is going on?

Overall Thoughts

Once more Christine successfully pulls off creating an effective mystery within an unusual setting; a setting which, as in Cold, Cold Heart, is intrinsically woven into the overall plot, as well as the plot of the killer. However, I would say this mystery has an atypical structure. What drives the plot along is Katie’s goal of solving how the scientific fraud is being committed, not Katie specifically looking into the rapid demise of a colleague. I found this structure intriguing as whilst Katie is pursuing her own investigation, the reader is following their own. Based on our additional insights into the killer’s plans, which we see unfold from the inside and externally, it is only natural that once Katie arrives at the research unit, we are drawn into deciding which of the people she meets is going to try and murder someone. An additional challenge is to decide which of the unusual events happening at the base are due to the killer’s plans, and which are simply red herrings.

Christine’s choice of setting also lends itself well to ramping up narrative tension, as Katie’s life is very much in peril, yet she is less aware of it, than the reader is. The tension is also contributed by the uncertainty the reader has over which events belong to the killer’s plan and which do not. The laboratory setting equally provides an interestingly different dramatic showdown.

I did wonder whether the current global situation would affect my enjoyment of this book, but thankfully it did not. The situation setup in the book, and the fact it predominantly takes place at the research institute, meant the plot felt very far removed from my own experience of shielding. Importantly the five infectious mosquitos are not simply let loose, as they might be in a thriller or an apocalyptic story. The killer is very precise in their target and the narrative also points out the short window of time the insects would survive in the January climate. So, for me at any rate, there was no negative emotional impact from reading this story, which I hope will reassure people thinking about giving the book a go.

The motive and the identity of the killer become clearer as the novel unfolds, though not until the final quarter or so, can the reader’s hunch become more certain. Katie’s stumbling onto this solution is perhaps a little last minute, but the information she gains about the other characters, in relation to her investigation into the results fraud, means she is able to whittle down her suspects more quickly.

However, Katie continues to be an engaging protagonist to follow, with her own internal struggles playing a part in the plot, but not taking it over either. I have not encountered many female scientists in fiction, but I felt Christine’s portrayal of Katie, avoids falling into stereotypical ruts.

So all in all I definitely recommend this book. You can tell the setting has been well-researched, which means it is used all the more effectively. In keeping with her other books, Christine provides an interesting variation on the closed set of suspects and I enjoyed how there was more than one mystery to figure out.

Rating: 4.5/5

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