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Posted on 7 May 2024 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

JILL JOHNSON Devil’s Breath. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Devil’s Breath is the first novel in a new crime series built around a neurodivergent professor of botanical toxicology, Eustacia Rose.

Eustacia Rose is currently ‘separated’ from her position at a university, disgraced after an incident in her laboratory. She lives alone in London with a hidden rooftop garden of poisonous plants.

There is a flat roof in north-west London that can’t be seen from the road, or from the windows of neighbouring houses, because it’s on top of a tall block of flats in a quiet residential street. On this roof is a garden of rare and unusual plants: tropical and arid, prostrate and fastigiate, exotic and exclusive, the needs of each catered for with meticulous care. It’s an oasis and a sanctuary in an unkind and unforgiving city. Only one person has access to the garden, via a hatch in their kitchen ceiling.

Professor Rose (as she prefers to be addressed) is a very contained person, even in the way she tells this, her own story: ‘I’m not one for exaggeration or self-aggrandisement.’

She keeps her hair precisely parted and held in place with Brylcreem, wears the clothes of her much loved, now deceased father, and is a woman of painstaking habits and routine. She is content to live a quiet life, yet has one vice, diverging slightly from her father’s love of celestial phenomena. Her telescope, hidden from view within the garden, is a device she also uses to covertly watch her neighbours. She is always hidden, never interacting with any of them.

Until the day she hears a scream, and finds herself drawn to help the extraordinarily beautiful Simone. Simone has a myriad of male callers, and Rose gives each of them a nickname based on her knowledge of poisonous plants and their toxic effects. Each interaction is carefully noted in Rose’s extensive set of notebooks.

However, on the nights when the cloud cover is too thick to see the stars, and memories of my lost love threaten to overwhelm me, I put the telescope to different use. Please be assured, I do this with no ill intent. It began purely as a distraction but soon became a form of social observation. A scientific pursuit, if you will. And as time has passed, my observations have grown into something quite significant. In fact, one day I plan to publish my findings, which is why I’ve always kept detailed accounts of the activities in a notebook. So far, I’ve filled twenty.

That is Rose all over. Meticulous in her approach to everything – the notations of the goings-on at Simone’s eliciting the same eye for detail as her extensive plant collection. In the case of the plants, it makes sense: Rose of all people is aware how dangerous many of them are.

Every morning I put on my protective overalls – slightly too short so that they catch uncomfortably at the crotch – climb the ladder and go through the hatch in my kitchen ceiling. I then begin the long list of daily tasks, carrying them out with extreme diligence. My routine never wavers. I execute each action following the exact scientific method because, if I don’t, there’s a viable risk of death.

Controlled and dispassionate, Rose is most comfortable when telling her own story from a scientific viewpoint. The reader shares her confusion when Simone goes missing, seemingly bundled into a vehicle as Rose watches. She cannot help but be drawn to discover what has happened, partly because of unrequited and unspoken attraction, partly because something like this means the world isn’t ordered, and that’s something Rose cannot abide. Mildly surprised, but determined to proceed, she starts following people, interacting with others, returning to the university that she left in disgrace, all to find Simone and discover her story. Everything becomes even more complicated when the police finally consent to get involved, and the assigned DCI is somebody Rose has had a bad experience with in the past.

Detective Chief Inspector Richard Roberts, to whom, the last time we’d met, I’d given the nomenclature Ragweed. Latin name: Ambrosia artemisiifolia. A tatty specimen, which releases a highly allergenic pollen dust, causing watery eyes, scratchy throat, sinus pain and swollen, bluish-coloured skin beneath the eyes. Irritating in the extreme.

Needless to say, Professor Eustacia Rose is an eccentric sort of a character. Undoubtedly neurodivergent, she’s a fascinating study of somebody who is diligent, ordered and structured in their approach to life, yet slightly out of touch. A life lived mostly with her much loved, now deceased father, her mother having disappeared when she was young.

Father had been a professor of Classics and English at Magdalen College, Oxford. He’d retired to a small flat in Camden a decade before to be closer to what he called his charmingly eccentric daughter, who had secured a professorship of her own at University College London. He could have named me after any number of ancient Greek goddesses but chose instead Eustacia, as a nod to Thomas Hardy. I had no memories of my mother, who disappeared unexpectedly when I was young. A parting so sudden that Father was thereafter left in a constant state of shocked bewilderment.

Simone’s disappearance seems to involve all of the men who used to call on her. Her sexual relationship with one in particular – who Rose knows only too well – soon leads to even more complications. This tale of a kidnapping and disappearance then becomes one of a murder by an obscure plant poison (of course), leading to a devastating fate for a garden. Rose’s own contained, risk-free life rapidly becomes anything but as unexpected connections to her past and present bring the action too close to home.

Jill Johnson’s style of writing perfectly reflects Rose’s eccentricity and neurodivergence without apology or explanation. It makes sense that her willingness to let things happen in the past is now part of the reason she is compelled to get involved in the hunt for Simone, and there is redemption in some of the outcomes, righting past injustices. The incorporation of toxic plant information is also done elegantly, with the reader never made to feel that this is a botany class dressed up as a novel.

Professor Eustacia Rose, for all her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, is a sympathetic, understandable and very relatable character. Her life is what it is and she is, for the most part, content, although some readers may find the implication that an introverted loner wasn’t happy to remain that way a little disconcerting. It might be that the reaching-out aspect of Professor Eustacia Rose’s personal life is exactly what’s required to develop this very deserving character’s story into a series of novels.

Jill Johnson Devil’s Breath Bonnier 2024 PB 304pp $32.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy Devil’s Breath from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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