BLACK MONDAY by R. Scott Reiss is my latest nightmare-inducer.
The premise of this tightly written, chilling work is fairly
simple: something has invaded most of the world's gas supply, thus
rendering a majority of internal combustion engines inoperative.
Planes fall out of the sky, food sits rotting, people get hungry
and the natives grow restless.
Reiss doesn't dawdle on the road to chaos. Just like those first
few raindrops in the middle of a picnic that herald the start of a
deluge, he kicks things off with a couple of early warnings: planes
mysteriously crash and cars suddenly stop running. There's a scene
near the beginning of BLACK MONDAY that is a homage to "The
Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (arguably the best-known episode
of "The Twilight Zone" television series) and sets things up for
the disaster and horror that is to come. Gregory Gillette has the
best chance of figuring out how and why the gasoline supply has
become contaminated, and what to do about it. Gillette is an
epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control; while his
specialty is the study of disease microbes that attack human
beings, it becomes evident to him that something similar is
invading the world's oil supply.
While nominally assigned to a rapid response team designated to
identify --- and then find some way of destroying --- the deadly
microbe that has been code-named Delta-3, Gillette learns he has
been backbenched by the head of the team, a longtime nemesis who is
letting hubris stand in the way of salvation. Gillette quickly
realizes that he must either wait helplessly with his family while
their neighborhood and city descend into chaos, along with the rest
of the industrialized world, or come up with a way to neutralize
and destroy the Delta-3 microbe before the damage to the world (and
society) becomes completely irreparable.
Disobeying orders and violating protocol, Gillette embarks on a
dangerous and increasingly difficult mission across the country to
find the source of the manufactured microbe that threatens to bring
civilization crashing down in a matter of weeks. Even as the world
is descending into chaos, however, a mysterious assassin is moving
through the United States, making a series of apparently random yet
carefully chosen killings that are somehow related to the
biological attack on the world's oil supply --- and he is on a
collision course with Gillette.
Gillette is an interesting and engaging character, whose
ordinariness balances nicely with his fortitude and uncanny ability
to keep asking questions until he hits the right one --- even as he
is subject to baser temptations. For his part, Reiss does a
wonderful job of explaining the process by which oil makes its way
from a hole in the ground to the pump on the corner. If BLACK
MONDAY has a weak spot, it's Reiss's occasional subtle plea for
development of alternative fuel sources. Whether it be oil, wind,
sun or horses, any mechanism that attempts to distribute power
equally over a certain distance, regardless of source, will be
vulnerable to the whim of a clown who tries to throw sand in the
gears. The solution, as the book ultimately demonstrates, is to
make life difficult, if not impossible, for the clown.
In any event, the "what-if" factor of BLACK MONDAY will be more
than enough to make you think about it every time you unscrew your
car's gas cap and wonder, for just a moment, if you're putting
something in the tank besides gas. Don't miss this one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011