It’s a race against time!
Medical mysteries are ideal for polemics, to say nothing of epidemics and pandemics. And anyone lucky enough to be publishing such a tale around now is automatically labeled a visionary. Two offerings, one very recent, one less so, present epidemic/pandemic scenarios within the framework of the medical mystery.
Immunity, a 2008 novel by Lori Andrews, ably exploits the defining characteristic of any medical detective story–that it’s a locked room mystery with the crime occurring inside the human body. And in this mystery, the death of an FBI agent by sniper turns out to be the work of a newly-released bioweapon. Dr. Alex Blake of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology finds herself in a race against time to isolate the cause helped by a rogue DEA agent and an AI supercomputer with an attitude.
Andrews does a competent job with pacing and excels with the technical details; she herself is an attorney with a specialization in genetics. But the novel suffers from over-dwelling on the inner world of her protagonist, which seems superfluous unless the character’s personal life has major bearing on the mystery. To be fair, it did in Sequence, a prior Alex Blake thriller, and so this focus on the personal is perhaps to be expected in a series following a single protagonist. But the progress of the bioweapon pandemic seems too neat and too episodic when Andrews shows it from her lead character’s limited perspective.
Pandemics, as we’re painfully learning, can happen in any number of ways. Where the culprit of Immunity is a bioweapon, the villain in Lawrence Wright’s The End Of October, handily published at the end of April, is more your garden-variety acute hemorrhagic fever. That’s understandable as Lori Andrews’ protagonist is a military doctor, while October’s Henry Parsons works for the World Health Organization.
The virus, first appearing at a refugee camp in Indonesia, quickly becomes the slow-burning fuse of an international crisis when the WHO discovers that on one of the infected is his way to Mecca for the Haj. Parsons must join forces with a Saudi prince and doctor as the plague vectors worldwide and causes a breakdown in the global order.
Both books deploy the “race against time” theme, but Wright’s background as a novelist makes him better able to employ it, following the slow, chaotic spread of an unpredictable force across a broad canvas as it undermines societies and nations. This seems to be how these things actually go. But, of course, hindsight is 20/20.
We live in the age of expert-written fiction. Any publicist’s success depends on his ability to book an author as an expert on some broadcast during which they can plug their book. Where fiction about pandemics is concerned, medical geekery, a talent for the rudiments of fiction, and enough creativity to dream up a unique investigator can land you a book contract. And no doubt the interviews are enlightening. But all that brain-power spent opining expertly, leaves little for the finer nuances of the fiction-writer’s craft.
We still await our medical-thriller Poirot, a character who, House-like, can embody all the entertaining tics and idiosyncrasies to which the medical profession is heir. Come great soul, we await you! So that when your real-life counterparts fail to prevent the apocalypse, we’ll at least have someone memorable to look back on fondly.