Dr Cook has written some great medical thrillers, but you can safely give this one a pass
I was shopping for some books in Barnes & Noble, where I’m not exposed to Amazon’s predatory marketing strategy of trying to fool or force me into a Kindle purchase, when I saw a red dust jacket with the word Viral on its spine. A new novel from Robin Cook, MD, whose early works were just great reads. Cook’s first novel didn’t do well, so he began researching how to write one that would become a hit. He succeeded, and Coma was a huge New York Times bestseller.
Dr. Cook went on to write a number of medical thrillers, and Viral is his latest. It has not fared well in reviews, and I will be adding my own thumbs-down here. The story begins lugubriously, with a boring and utterly nonessential-to-the-plot amount of detail about a breakfast. Eventually we learn Emma, wife of Brian, the lead character, has been stung by a rare Asian Tiger mosquito. She is soon ill with Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE, and is rushed to a hospital emergency department for care. But she soon dies, and Brian is saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills which his insurance company refuses to pay.
I, and many other Americans, have had similar occurrences in our business (not medical) dealings with healthcare. I had an extraordinary learning experience not long ago, helping a Boston MD write his book about our arcane, profit-based healthcare system. His approach was to describe a way to fix it while still allowing medical facilities and insurance companies to earn a profit. As you likely know or can at least infer, medical practitioners know nothing about costs and don’t want to know. Their mission is to provide medical treatment and keep us well.
The Brian character is like most of us—up to a point. He’s frustrated, feels dumb, and then he gets mad. He takes his complaint to the CFOs of both the hospital and the insurance company, to no avail. Then his four-year-old daughter comes down with EEE and she dies, too. Now he’s livid and blames everything on the rapacious healthcare system.
The famed rebel journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” And so does Brian, who’s a retired police officer with marksman skills. He, along with his fellow sufferer, goes after the CEO culprits and shoots them both dead, then together they escape to France.
I was flabbergasted. How did either of those heinous crimes solve the problem? They didn’t, nor did they even make a statement. Like The Who sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” And Cook, a doctor sworn to uphold the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, seems to be advocating murderous anarchy? I know, I know it’s fiction, but I’m still scratching my head.
That may not be a reason pass on reading Viral, but the vapid writing certainly is. The book plods, then it plods, then it plods some more. Honestly I skim-read it, mostly the first sentences of paragraphs. The rest was mostly drivel. The ending is ridiculous; having escaped, now Brian wants to be caught and remanded to the US justice system. To what point? Cook doesn’t take that post-murder aspect of the story anywhere. Now that might have been interesting.
Had I been the editor at Penguin, I’d have rejected this manuscript. But you don’t have to take my word for this being a thumbs-down book. Read this review from Publishers Weekly on the B&N web page, or for that matter the reviews on the Amazon page.