Profile K by Helen Fields

I love thrillers that will standalone, and Helen Fields’ latest took me by surprise slightly. I was expecting a sequel to The Institution which introduced us to Connie Woolwine, an American profiler and her British sidekick Brodie Baarda, who went undercover in the world’s most secure prison hospital for the criminally insane.

Instead, after a particularly gruesome opening chapter in which we meet the man who develops a taste for murder to satisfy his urges with poor Chloe Martin as his first victim, we head to leading biotech company Necto’s UK HQ, where Midnight Jones is late for work, something very much frowned upon in this corporate world. My immediate thought was ‘Midnight’? But we soon find out that Midnight and her twin sister Dawn were born either side of that hour, so the names fit. We also discover that Dawn needs 24hr care, that their parents have essentially abandoned them, leaving Midnight to care alone for her. She’s lucky that her job pays exceptionally well and she can afford Dawn’s care if they budget carefully, and the day carers aren’t late.

Midnight is part of a project team that is preassessing candidates for some popular college courses. The candidates wear state of the art sensors to measure everything and headsets to follow eyeball tracking and so on, her colleague Amber says, “it makes the CIA’s lie detector system look like something from the Neanderthal age.” Part of the test examines emotional responses to images, and the system selects pictures depending on how the applicant reacts. When the candidate starts their test, they receive an email to say their “application profile was ‘. . . now being assessed by Midnight J at Necto. You’re a step closer to your future.” A supposedly friendly touch from a Biotech company trying not to be scary.

When Midnight gets a set of results that are nearly off the scale, she thinks the system must have gone wrong. She downloads the data to take another look. It was for an environmental sciences course, and the images showed pollution and disease, and dying cattle.

The applicant had no empathetic reaction to the dying caattle. None at all. … So the computer stepped it up a gear. Midnight watched animals being slaughtered in abattoirs. Still nothing registered in terms of a reaction…

And it goes on – all the way up to torture and snuff movies. Midnight is naturally absolutely disgusted and terrified by it. The applicant is a ‘Profile K’ – the fabled K for killer. She takes it to her boss who laughs it off, so she goes to his boss, barging in on the Director of Operations, who takes it seriously, but also fobs her off, congratulating her on finding a corrupt file.

Good thing she put a copy on a pen drive because if it were real, the ‘applicant’ has got her name…

We’re a short way into the novel, and you can sense that there will be a terrifying ordeal to come, and it will, of course. Before we get there though, there are more murders, and Midnight will find it all going wrong for her at Necto. Worried, she will seek help from outside the organisation, from a consultant who once did some work for them. That help is none other than Connie Woolwine, who makes a welcome guest appearance, working with Midnight to narrow down the suspects, and to buoy up Midnight’s resilience.

I very much enjoyed the biotech elements which, as she says in her acknowledgments, are there, just not used for what happens here (we hope!). As someone with a keen interest in scientific developments, this scares me as much as the threat of AI. Once again, Helen Fields has written a pacey thriller which engages from the start. Midnight is such an interesting character, clever but caring, resourceful and with a strong sense of social justice. For her parents to just totally abandon her disabled sister to her care made them monsters, and made Midnight all the stronger. I’d like to see more of her, (and I believe we just might…).

Source: Review copy for the blogtour – thank you. Avon hardback, 384 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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