Mutant: A Medical Thriller
The city I live in is one of a few with what was once called an Army supply base, or Defense Construction Supply Center (DCSC, as our acronym-happy government would call it). The thing is nowhere near what it once was, in terms of activity, and now resembles a sleepy border town, as opposed to the vigorous, virile and potent area it used to be, with jeeps flying all over the place and large pallets of widgets being transported hither and yon. It used to be rumored, though, that there were more nefarious activities going on there. Every time some sort of mild flu would sweep through the city someone would recount the rumor that the pointyheads at DCSC were test driving a new virus to see how people would react --- would they miss work, grin and bear it, would crime go up or down, how long would it last, etc. I don't know if this was actually going on, but every once in a while some old-timer in town will swear up and down to the truth of that rumor.
I thought of that possible urban legend over and over as I read MUTANT, Peter Clement's new medical suspense thriller. MUTANT opens with a pattern that Clement has mastered well over the course of his last several novels, taking three seemingly unrelated occurrences (a child suddenly stricken with a horrible illness, an irascible emergency room physician experiencing a heart attack, and the disruption of a conference on genetically enhanced food), quickly but expertly merging them, and driving the components with due and deliberate speed toward a satisfying conclusion.
Dr. Kathleen Sullivan is convinced that the growing and marketing of mutated foods is being done without the proper research and safeguards. Her major contention is not that the available data supports or refutes her concerns; it is that there is no data available. Her request that a simple procedure be performed on new genetic enhancements before they are used in food processing is met with angry resistance. Sensing that she might be onto something due to the stonewalling she encounters, Sullivan begins an investigation on her own. However, she cannot come close to guessing what her investigation ultimately will uncover: Terrorists are planning to unleash a genetic MUTANT virus through the nation's corn supply --- and are planning an inaugural test of the virus in New York City on July 4. Sullivan's investigation places her and Dr. Richard Steele squarely in the path of the terrorists, but it appears that they have discovered too little about the terrorists' plot, too late, to keep it from succeeding.
Outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease in Europe, anthrax being sent through the mail in the United States, and other threats worldwide make MUTANT all the more remarkable. The book was published in July 2001, but the release date was set sometime in 2000, and given the vagaries of publishing schedules, Clement probably had the final manuscript to his editor about, oh...summer of 2000. This means, of course, that Clement saw a lot of this coming, or at least recognized the potential for it. The guy is either prescient or maybe just merely brilliantly good at connecting the dots. Maybe he's both. We'll keep watching his future novels to find out and for some hints on when to keep our heads down.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 3, 2001