In his debut thriller, The Perfect Corpse, Giles Milton combines his mastery of strong narratives and his attention to historical detail to produce a page-turner as gripping as the best of Robert Harris. When a frozen corpse is found in Greenland ice — assumed to be that of second world war US soldier, Ferris Clark — forensic archaeologist Jack Raven is called in to investigate. His suspicions are immediately aroused by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the corpse’s discovery: it was found in pristine condition, naked and upside-down. With the help of his German ex-lover, Karin, he gradually uncovers the dark truth behind Clark’s final hours. Meanwhile, drama mounts as Raven finds himself at the centre of a desperate hunt for a murderer on a killing spree — the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong.
Though it is not his first novel, The Perfect Corpse is quite a departure from Milton’s usual non-fiction, historical writing. Milton does an outstanding job of marrying past and present, and the second world war backstory — centred around German and Allied rivalry over arctic weather stations — is informative and intriguing. He doesn’t stray too far from the truth, either. Indeed, British and American control of the Arctic meant that German meteorologists had less information on incoming weather patterns. This was crucial during the D-Day landings: the Luftwaffe’s meteorological centre in Paris made a grave miscalculation when it predicted two weeks of stormy weather, leading the German High Command to expect the invasion at a later date. A quick glance at Milton’s oeuvre and it is clear that he has long capitalised on his keen eye for compelling, lesser-known histories. But with ‘The Perfect Corpse’, he has shown for the first time that he is able to spin his historical research into an entertaining story that strikes the ideal balance between fact and fiction.
One of the book’s greatest asset is its clever structure. It begins with a riveting prologue, which sets the scene evocatively short of revealing so much that the rest of the book becomes predictable. As the plot develops, Milton keeps up a steady pace so that the reader is almost always in step with the main characters. This way, every new discovery is as much a surprise to the reader as it is to Jack Raven. It is also commendable that there is no loss of momentum going from scenes of historical investigation to ones of action and peril. In fact, the series of murders is made all the more suspenseful by the extraordinary revelations that unfold as Karin digs feverishly through the archives. In the final chapter, the narrative is laid neatly to rest as the clocks are once again wound back to Greenland, 1944, unveiling what really happened to Ferris Clark and his assailants on that fateful day. Readers will appreciate having some of the mysterious plot threads cleared up.
Whether you are a fan of Milton’s bestselling history books or not, The Perfect Corpse should prove an enjoyable read.