"Carriers," by Patrick Lynch. New York: Villard Books. 355 pages. $23 Modern life has put us all within hours of contact with killer viruses. Richard Preston detailed the dangerous possibilities and the implications of a real-life outbreak last year in his best-selling non-fiction book "The Hot Zone." This summer Dustin Hoffman starred in a summer movie based on a similar premise. Now, the new novel "Carriers" capitalizes on the same theme.
It is a dramatic story in any form. But the pair of British writers who use the pseudonym Patrick Lynch have chosen to follow the lead of "The Hot Zone" in style and substance. And like Mr. Preston's book, the novel features a top-notch female scientist who must temporarily forget her children so she can investigate the most dangerous pathogens on earth.
Both of these characters do their work at the real U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick. But rather than taking readers to Africa, the authors bring us to another likely place for an emerging virus - Sumatra, in Indonesia. Along the way, this work of popular contemporary fiction weaves in accurate, clear explanations of the science behind the drama.
The authors use that to their advantage, describing, for example, the horrendous way people die from viruses like Ebola, which causes massive internal bleeding. They also explain how these viruses can live harmlessly in monkeys, insects or rodents for years, even centuries. But with researchers, tourists and others in the jungles, these viruses have a greater chance of infecting other species, where they can be lethal. As "Carriers" shows, that can easily happen through insects biting a tourist hiking in the jungle, or a monkey biting a hunter trying to catch it for research.
Like "The Hot Zone," "Carriers" reveals the fear and panic that these medical detectives routinely face, in the lab and the field. In Sumatra, in a frantic race to find the source of the virus, one of the key scientists, Lt. Col. Carmen Travis, and her team deal with politics and Third World conditions similar, if perhaps a little exaggerated, to what the real-life specialists from Fort Detrick and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control encounter in such locales.
Unfortunately, the writers miss an opportunity to develop memorable characters and delve more into the psyche of these scientists. More exploration of what drives them in these jobs would have been fascinating. Also, in setting up the backdrop for the outbreak, the novel creates confusion by jumping around to many different time zones, continents and characters. The few details given about certain characters, particularly Lt. Col. Travis, as she watches from her kitchen window as her two sons play ball, are so shallow that they seem fake.
The book is at its best when the authors zero in on tracking the virus, and any lay reader will enjoy it. After spending many pages on the agonizing search of Lt. Col. Travis' team, a wonderful four-page chapter creates an urgency and tension worthy of the powerful virus.
There is a thunderstorm and a nightmare. Lt. Col. Travis sees one of the potentially infected men at a convent where he is quarantined. She notices he is inscribing the names of thousands of the dead. Then her son appears, his feet slapping against the stone floor, a dark stain of blood spreading on the cotton of his oversized pajamas.
After that, the plot of "Carriers" drives so fast and raises so many possibilities that it almost gets out of control, but again, by honing in on the virus, the authors deliver a clever and compelling conclusion.
Diana K. Sugg is a science reporter at The Sun. She worked at the Sacramento Bee as a medical reporter and a crime reporter. Before that, she was at the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal and the Associated Press. She is a contributor to "News Reporting and Writing," the sixth edition.