Christine Poulson is a friend of mine whose crime fiction deserve to be much better known, and I'm delighted to host a guest blog post from her to celebrate the publication by Lion Hudson of her latest novel, An Air That Kills. I can recommend her blog A Reading Life, by the way, which is full of characteristically thoughtful observations.
"‘Where do you get your ideas?’ That’s a question that writers are often asked, and in truth they can come from anywhere. They can be ripped from today’s headlines or they can have lain dormant in your memory for decades. In the case of my new novel, An Air That Kills, it was both.
At the beginning of 2018 I was casting around for an idea for the third in a series of novels featuring medical researcher, Katie Flanagan. In the second, Cold, Cold Heart I had sent her to a remote research station in Antarctica. That was going to be a hard act to follow. And then on 10th February I saw this headline on the front page of the Guardian: ‘Blunders exposed scientists to killer bugs.’ The piece that followed made hair-raising reading. It claimed that breaches of protocol had led to dengue virus - which kills around 20,000 people worldwide every year - being sent through the ordinary post and to students studying live meningitis pathogens that they mistakenly thought had been killed by heat treatment. As soon as I read it, I knew where Katie was going next: I was going to send her undercover to a high security lab where the scientists were as deadly as the diseases.
The article made such an impact, I think, because it triggered a memory from many years ago. It was 1978 and I was a postgraduate student at Birmingham University. On 11 August Janet Parker, a medical photographer in the anatomy department, fell ill with what was at first was thought to be chickenpox. It was in fact smallpox and she died a month later. Hers was the last recorded death from the disease. In 1980 the World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated. It seemed certain that she must somehow have contracted the disease from the research lab on the floor below, though strangely the exact means of transmission was never established.
I followed this terrible story as it unfolded in the local paper. I don’t remember fearing for my own safety. All those who had been in contact with Janet Parker were quarantined. But to be so close to the scene of such a tragedy did leave a lasting impression. I thought of it often as I planned and wrote An Air That Kills."