cover image The Eleventh Plague

The Eleventh Plague

John Baldwin, John S. Marr. William Morrow & Company, $24 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-06-018777-4

Contrary to its title and subtitle, this medical thriller lacks sufficient force to be called a pox, much less a plague, though it does contain enough bumpy writing to discomfort discerning readers--as well as some truly gripping medical lore. Some of the blame must rest with epidemiologist Marr, whose ""medical research explaining the causes of the ten plagues of Exodus,"" according to the publisher, so fascinated him that ""he decided to dramatize his findings in a novel."" The rest can be attributed to freelance writer Baldwin (Icepick). The premise is pure corn: that an aggrieved mad scientist is striking back at society by unleashing escalating variants of the 10 plagues. The action starts with plague number four, ""swarm,"" as bees sting folks to death in San Antonio. The other plagues are depicted as they occur, or in awkward flashbacks through diary entries written by the madman, Theodore R.G. Kameron. Arrayed against Kameron as he sows death through mycotoxins, anthrax, botulism and other biological terrors are, primarily, maverick virologist Jack Bryne and FBI agent Scott Hubbard. The authors try to milk suspense from Hubbard's suspicion that Bryne is the true culprit, then from uncertainty regarding the nature of the final plagues, but the plotting is mechanical and therefore predictable, and it's laid out in pedestrian prose. Marr's findings about the plagues are scattered throughout the novel, as is a historical and global overview of disease and natural toxins. This material is fascinating; would that Marr had presented them in the nonfiction book this novel should have been. $200,000 ad/promo; U.K., translation, dramatic rights: John Boswell. (Feb.)