Peter James is mounting a bloody assault on the world of the British crime thriller — not so much by stealth, but taking it by the throat and shaking vigorously. And the Blitzkrieg is working: his series of police procedurals featuring Brighton copper Roy Grace routinely storm the bestseller charts, and James recently won the People’s Bestseller Dagger (he promised that if he won, he would buy all his supporters fish and chips on Brighton Pier — a promise he was obliged to fulfil). Perhaps, however, he is risking the loyalty of the growing legion of James fans with his latest book, a high-concept standalone with Roy Grace hors de combat. Will Peter James’ new fans be prepared to accept his move into this new 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 couple watched in despair as their son died a painful and distressing death. The effect on the Klaessons is traumatic, and they persuade themselves that by paying a prodigious amount of money to the brilliant geneticist Leo Dettore they can avoid a repetition of the earlier tragedy with another child. What’s more, science (and Dettore) can offer them a raft of new possibilities — possibilities that pose a host of moral and ethical dilemmas. The couple’s second child can be shielded from the genetic defect that claimed their first born, and other advantages can be built into the ultimate designer baby (and here James moves into the realm of near-future possibilities); not only can the child be more empathetic, he or she will be able to cope with just a few hours sleep a night (in the fashion of Margaret Thatcher and James Dean, though those exemplars may have a limited appeal) — and a variety of other natural advantages over the rest of the human race can be finessed.

Robert Harris and Michael Crichton (in dealing with similar science-based scenarios) 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 Peter James readers will be aware that the author’s career began with just such high-concept ventures (in, for instance, 1993’s Host). So it is perhaps no surprise that he is able to skilfully balance his highly original central notion, the knotty moral dilemmas his characters face, and the nimble storytelling he has been honing for so many years. More standalones, Mr James.

Perfect People by Peter James

Macmillan, £18.99

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