I’ve got a soft spot for Richard Preston (The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event), so I knew that Plague Maker, a new novel by Tim Downs would be right up my alley. As a bio-terrorism suspense-thriller, the book does not disappoint.
In some respects, Plague Maker is, however, a paint-by-numbers thriller. Our hero is a gruff loose-cannon of an FBI agent with a heart of gold — and a past that haunts him. His ex-wife, Macy Monroe, is a Columbia University professor and expert in the psychology of terrorism. An unlikely set of circumstances forces the two to work together in a race to stop a homicidal madman with a decades-old grudge from unleashing his wrath on the city of New York. Can they stop the madman in time? And can they, perhaps, learn to love again?
The nice thing about Plague Maker is that the stock elements don’t overshadow the story as a whole. Agent Donovan is called to a TriBeCa murder scene that is ordinary enough, except for one small detail — make that thousands of small details. The murder victim’s hoity-toity loft space is covered with dead fleas, which were released and then exterminated on purpose. Donovan tugs at this thread and ultimately unravels a plot to expose the citizens of New York to a drug-resistant strain of the bubonic plague.
As Donovan’s investigation unfolds, he gets indispensable help from an unlikely source. Li, an octogenarian Chinese man who opted for an Oxford education and conversion to Anglicanism early in life, shows up after hearing about the TriBeCa murder to point Nathan in the direction of the killer. He gets a chance to exorcise some decades-old demons of his own in the process.
Downs’ book, while far-fetched (we hope), is well enough rooted in fact to be downright unsettling. He borrows aspects from subjects as far apart as Japanese atrocities in Manchuria during World War II and the current war on terror to weave together a tale of heartbreak and revenge. How, the book asks, can we be released from the ghosts of the past?
Plague Maker is published by WestBow Press, which specializes in Christian literature. While there certainly could be Christian messages drawn from this book, they are so far below the radar as to be positively invisible. This novel is, first and foremost, a thriller that’s smart (in a stupid sort of way) and fun to read. If you’re interested in escaping to a fantasy world where federal agents are competent and actually have a chance to catch the bad guys, by all means, pick up a copy of Plague Maker.