Who are you going to call? Dirt busters

Eco-cops on the autobahn. Jasper Rees takes a bite at a green thriller
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The only unappetising thing about Accidents Will Happen is the name of the city where the "accident" happens. Julian Rathbone's prefatory note concedes that his fictional Burg would be found on the map where Bremen is, but he has wiped the slate clean, and imagined his own classless, technocratic urbs.

This book does for Germany what Michael Dibdin's Zen series does for Italy. The locale being less charismatic, though, the task is subtler. Rathbone seeks out odours and textures like a nosey tourist - pipe fumes wafting off the regional interior minister, the stubbly pates of disenfranchised Ossi cops, the autobahn's dull perfection. He's also good on the newness of Germany, twice reinvented in half a century, but still enthralled to pre-war gods: homophobia, racism, and the coalescent obsession with cleanliness.

Renata Fechter is a new kind of cop, a fit, trim, ambitious single woman of 40 heading up the local branch of a new dirt-busting police force, the Eco-Cops. Despite her staff's unreliability and the anonymous opposition of higher forces, Fechter determines to make progress when an operative at a nuclear plant is found murdered. The criminal police palm it off as a homosexual killing, and haul in the victim's lover. He warns of an illegal attempt to ship out a crate of radioactive waste before he too is rubbed out.

The crate is in storage at an abandoned racetrack, owned by a needy Lombard businessman. He agrees to store it for a client who will help him develop the site into a classic-car hypermarket. The Lombard also happens to be Fechter's new boyfriend, and when she is snapped topless by a paparazzo at his Como villa, she smells his complicity in a scheme to damage her credibility. The plot here betrays signs of top-heaviness: it's never explained why a gas-guzzler salesman would seek out and seduce a woman who trawls for eco-unfriendly peccadilloes.

But we quibble. This is a flavoursome thriller, peopled by gargoyles and grotesques, which skilfully taps into mounting paranoia about green issues. Rathbone's prose courses along comfortably, pausing only to clamber over flourishes which block the way like an awkward stile in a footpath. He's particularly odd on laughter: "Roehl laughed, the sound an ice-floe makes when it sheds a small avalanche of year-old ice." Or, "Her laugh was like a wind harp made of fragile sea-shells caught in an unexpected breeze". Perhaps it's because Burg is so unremittingly urban that Rathbone feels a need to visit the countryside in his similes.

Accidents Will Happen

by Julian Rathbone

Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99