Written by Jackie McLean — Scottish author Jackie McLean has certainly jumped in at the deep end for her debut novel. Toxic is inspired by the Bhopal disaster, the world’s biggest industrial accident, where thousands of people were killed in one night. The book opens with a scene set in 1984 in Bhopal, at the heart of the disaster. As if describing the horrors of what happened when water was poured into a tank of improperly stored methyl isocyanate (MIC) wasn’t enough, the opening chapter also includes a vicious rape.
Jump to present day Dundee, where we meet the absolute one-off that is DI Donna Davenport. Gay, chain-smoking and bipolar (the latter being something she has managed, so far, to hide from the higher-ups), Donna is quick to throw in the towel after a reprimand from her boss, DCI Angus Ross. Truth be told, she is too fond of sailing close to the wind and shooting her mouth off and this time she has gone too far and faces suspension. As a furious Davenport slams out of Ross’s office, he is left to contemplate the loss of his most talented investigator.
Then the force receives a credible tip-off that MIC is being illegally stored on their patch, and Donna is called back into the fold. She may have a reputation as something of a renegade, but it is as naught compared to that of DI Jonas Evanton, who has been shifted to Dundee from another force after beating a confession out of a suspect. He also has a serious problem with women, so pairing him with Donna is never going to be a match made in heaven.
The tip-off is being treated seriously, and a hush-hush government investigation is launched. But someone is trying to sabotage that investigation, and when the local politician leading it is almost killed in a mysterious chemical incident at a newly opened Arbroath restaurant, Donna finds herself slap-bang in the middle of it all. The restaurant owner is none other than Danny Quinn, brother to Dr Libby Quinn, who until recently was Donna’s partner, and it looks like he is being made a scapegoat to throw the team off the scent. It’s just one example of a serpentine storyline in a veritable web woven by McLean, who displays a sure and steady hand throughout. Also chucked into the melting pot are two shipwrecked Estonians, a bigamous US professor, a money-grabbing quarry owner and an ambitious researcher. Oh, and my favourite of them all, Donna’s taxi-driver buddy Natesh.
They’re brought together in a humdinger of a plot that is as realistic as it is frightening. Something like this could really happen – and it’s enough to keep you awake at night. It all escalates in just four days, and you’ll find that it turns out to be a pretty bumpy ride. There will be many deaths before this thing is out, but will Donna be among them? The tension keeps on ratcheting up a notch and even the final sentence will give you pause in a book that at times leaves you breathless.
My one quibble about this book is the proofreading slip-ups – crevasse instead of crevice, for instance; discrete when it should have been discreet – and the extremely irritating port-a-cabin… It should be either the official trademarked name of Portakabin or a temporary building. Grrr!
Toxic was shortlisted for the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2011 and Jackie McLean has also been longlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. It is dedicated to those who campaign for justice for the victims of Bhopal and part of the proceeds from sales will go to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a UK-based charity which supports two clinics in the disaster area.
Toxic is released on 20 November.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars