cover image The Blood Artists

The Blood Artists

Chuck Hogan. William Morrow & Company, $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-688-15622-0

In his 1995 debut novel, The Standoff, Hogan proved himself expert at the political-action thriller. One wonders why, then, he has followed up with a speculative medical thriller--much less one that takes place nearly 20 years from now, that features such improbabilities as a virus that ""has taken human form"" and that unfolds via a narrative that shuttles awkwardly between first-person and third. The blood artists are Centers for Disease Control virologists Peter Maryk and Stephen Pearse (the opening narrator), who, in 2010, are working to develop a blood substitute enhanced by elements from Maryk's freakishly inviolable immune system. Together, they travel to Africa to investigate an unknown virus that devastates a remote outpost until Maryk, who's as coldhearted as Pearse is warm, orders a blanket bombing of the area. The story then jumps to 2016, as the pair receive a Nobel for the blood substitute. Their triumph is short-lived, however. The virus resurfaces in South Carolina, infecting Pearse. With his colleague dying, Maryk takes center stage as the third-person narration (interrupted by Pearse's fevered reflections) traces his struggle against the virus, which, having survived Africa due to an error by Pearse, is being deliberately spread by ""a man colonized by an iatrogenic mutation of an immunopathic retrovirus. A humanized virus vector posed to infect the world."" That man-virus is also posed to murder a woman whose blood may prove key to saving humanity from viral extinction. There's much to admire here: full-blooded (so to speak) characters, resonant prose, a scattering of crackling action sequences and an abiding and affecting sense of melancholy. The lack of a properly sympathetic hero, though, and muddled structure and plotting, place what should have been a robust thriller into the intensive care ward. Author tour. (Apr.)