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Perfect People: The Independent

By Barry Forshaw

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Peter James is mounting a bloody assault on the world of the British crime thriller, taking it by the throat and shaking it vigorously. It’s working: his series of police procedurals featuring Brighton copper Roy Grace routinely storm the charts, and James recently won the People’s Bestseller Dagger award. Perhaps, however, he is risking the loyalty of the growing legion of James fans with his latest book, a high-concept standalone novel with Roy Grace hors de combat. Will the new admirers be prepared to accept his move into the arena?

Californians John and Naomi Klaesson have been grieving over the loss of their four-year-old son, who fell victim to a rare genetic disease. The effect on them is traumatic, and they persuade themselves that by paying a lot of money to the brilliant geneticist Leo Dettore they can avoid a repetition of the tragedy with another child.

What’s more, science (and Dettore) can offer them a raft of new possibilities that pose a host of ethical dilemmas. The couple’s second child can be shielded from the genetic defect taht claimed their first-born, and other advantages can be built into the ultimate designer baby. Not only can the child be more empathetic; he or she will be able to cope with just a few hours sleep each night. A variety of other natural advantages over the rest of the human race can be finessed.

In dealing with similar science-based scenarios, Robert Harris and Michael Crichton made their protagonists extraordinary characters with whom the reader is not perhaps expected to identify. But James decides to stress the ordinary nature of his conflicted couple. Accordingly, their encounter with Frankenstein-style science is particularly persuasive – and James ensures that both they (and the reader) are thoroughly put through the wringer.

Long-term James readers will be aware that his career began with just such high-concept ventures – in, for instance, the 1993 novel Host. So it is perhaps no surprise that he is able to skilfully balance his highly original central notion, the knotty dilemmas his characters face, and the nimble storytelling he has been honing for so many years. More standalones, please, Mr James.