Published by Soho Press on April 10, 2012
Every thriller set in Africa must, it seems, include in its cast a tough-minded female doctor doing humanitarian work. In Viral, that role is played by Sandra Oku. She watches dozens of villagers die during the course of a morning, victims of a mysterious and fast-acting respiratory disease. As the disease spreads through the village and to surrounding farms, Sandra realizes that this is the threat of which her cousin, the journalist Paul Bahdru, had warned her, albeit in vague terms. Days after that conversation, Bahdru is scheduled to meet with private intelligence analyst Charles Mallory. As Charles waits for Bahdru to appear, a package is delivered to Charles containing Bahdru's head. When Charles fails to keep a telephonic appointment with his brother Jon (having hinted that he will provide Jon with a big story for Jon's weekly news publication), Jon goes to Africa in search of Charles, who in turn wants Jon to be witness to a tragic story that needs to be told. Another witness is, of course, Sandra Oku. There weren't supposed to be any witnesses, she tells Jon, so it isn't surprising when witnesses start to die.
And so the stage is set for the reader to guess at the exact nature of the threat -- a revelation that comes a little more than halfway through -- and to guess how Jon and Charles will defeat the bad guys. They are the main characters; Sandra and many other characters weave in and out of the story's fabric but play secondary parts. This isn't a medical thriller; we hear some familiar information about how a virus might be created and defeated, but the focus is on the two brothers, not on doctors or microbiologists.
Much of the story has a familiar feel. It differs in key respects from spreading-virus novels like Outbreak, from bioterrorism novels like The Cobra Event, and from corporate conspiracy novels like Contagion, but Viral blends in elements of each. It also echoes classic Ludlum thrillers in which the people who can help the hero die before they get the chance. The apparent goal of the bad guys' scheme is one I haven't seen in other thrillers, although thriller writers like to employ misdirection. In this case, it's a temptation that should have been resisted. What seems like an unusual and inventive story turns into one that is all too ordinary. Even before that plot twist appeared, the story had such a derivative feel that I couldn't get excited about it. The story cruises to a predictable but entertaining conclusion, although the last quarter of the novel is longer than it needs to be.
The best subplot involves manipulation of the media. I particularly liked the comparison of news stories to viruses that spread out of control. Cryptology fans will enjoy the ciphers that Jon must puzzle out. I thought his ability to do so was a bit of a stretch, and I was never convinced that Charles wouldn't have simply called Jon rather than playing cipher games, but most modern thrillers ask the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. In that regard, the most difficult thing to accept is that Jon can pass for an African by wearing dark brown make-up while he labors all day under the hot sun.
Neither the good guys nor the bad guys have unique personalities; they are wooden creations that exist only to drive the plot. James Lilliefors' writing style is clean and competent and most of the novel moves quickly. Parts of the novel work quite well, but the attempt to reconceive it in the final chapters falls flat, in part because too much chitchat stalls the story's momentum. An attempt to jump-start the action again in the final pages was welcome but belated. In short, this is a likeable but flawed thriller.
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