Wednesday, January 17

Plague by Gary Birken, MD

Review by Pat Brown

I love finding new bioterrorism, end of the world books. There are so few written it seems, though it's a hot topic, and even fewer good ones. This one, sadly, is not one of the good ones.

Since the author, Gary Birken is a doctor, I can believe what he writes about hospitals, diseases and all the plot points dealing with the bioterrorism facts. But his characters are lacking in depth to put it mildly. The main protag, a French born woman with an extremely wealthy father seems more like a perfect princess than a real human being. She is super smart, super beautiful and as far as I can tell is loved by all, except the bad guy.

She is also the one who first diagnoses the mysterious illness that has a young boy on death's door. She is the one who first suspects that the boy was deliberately infected with the disease. Of course her suspicions are pooh-poohed by the hospital administrator, but like any good  super sleuth, she ploughs ahead anyway and uncovers more damning proof. Her love interest is another brilliant incredibly sexy doctor who vaguely tries to talk reason to her, but in the end supports her fully. For the most part all the other people, mostly hospital employees from lab technicians to other doctors answer all of the protag's inquiries without question. The good guys are all really really good and only wants what's best for the hospital, even the top administrator.

I have to say for a novel that is called Plague I expected a bit more actual disease to be going on. In truth 2 children die of different illnesses and one woman is killed 'because she somehow knows too much' The child who dies of pneumonic plague, which is highly contagious as well as being very lethal, so it's correct that the girl should die. But how is it between the time she's infected and the time she's put in isolation not one other person, including her mother, is infected?  The pneumonic version of the disease is the one favored by bioterrorists because of its lethality and the fact it spreads so quickly, so in my opinion the author missed a great opportunity to raise the stakes. Instead, each new attack is discovered very quickly (by the protag,natch) and contained. Or in the case of the girl with the plague, simply dies without affecting anyone else.

Fairly quickly she determines who is doing this and even the hospital
administration has to admit something terrible is happening. So the FBI is called in. In the course of their investigation they interview the protag, who becomes upset at being questioned. At no point is she accused in even the most oblique way of being involved, but even so, I would expect someone who's supposed to be as smart as she is to realize the police question everyone. Her reaction is out of character and makes no sense then or later except to set up the cliched antagonism between the protag and the authorities.   Oddly enough, one of the things which bothered me the most was the death of the adult woman who the killer suspected of knowing too much. One: why kill her, but not the protag, who's so much closer to finding
out the truth? Two: we learn she was killed in the same manner as the Bulgarian diplomat who was poisoned by having a pellet of ricin jabbed into his leg. It's a nasty death and can take days. This woman is a member of the same hospital as all the other characters, but she's never mentioned again. Were told she dies a drawn out death and since her death would be a mystery a full autopsy would be performed. It's hard to believe the puncture mark and ricin pellet would be missed. But the fact is she simply disappears from the story. It's like the author forgot about her.

There was little mystery as to who the antagonists were. The  only
thing that I didn't figure out was why. I didn't find it terribly believable, not given the fact that only about 5 people were infected with 3 different diseases, only one of which was actually that contagious. And only 2 died. How many people die in a hospital in any given week? Two deaths are a blip on the radar. The only thing that might generate some real excitement is if Ebola broke out in the hospital. Then if wouldn't matter how many people got it or died of it, it would make headlines.

In truth to accomplish what the antagonist wanted he should have infected a large office building with the pneumonic plague. Then he would have got the country's attention.

So I'm still waiting for the ultimate plague book. The truth is I still think The Hot Zone by Richard Preston leads the pack and it's not even fiction. So if anyone has a yen to write about death on a massive scale please, please try your hand at a disaster book featuring some kind of man made or natural plague. I'm almost tempted to write one myself but I don't know anything about the medical end of things. Or the military, either. I even have a bare bones plot for such a book.

In the meantime, sadly, I have to give this book a C- The book has a great tag line on the back that as an author I would kill for - it's the main reason I picked the book up in the first place.

No one can survive him.

... an inexplicable disease is reaching terrifying proportions
- Er, 5 sick kids, 2 of whom die is not terrifying proportions.

No one can predict him.

No one can stop him
.

Unfortunately they don't live up to the hype. It they did it would have been a great story.

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