When many people think of medical thrillers, they think of Robin Cook. That makes sense, too, given Cook’s success and popularity. Even before Cook achieved his phenomenal popularity, though, there were medical thrillers. One of them, Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, is my choice for this week’s “stop” - the letter "N" - on the alphabet in crime fiction community meme’s journey through the alphabet. Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for guiding us on our perilous way through all of these crimes : ).
The Nightmare Factor, published in 1978, is the story of Dr. Calvin Doohan, a Scottish transplant to San Francisco. As the novel opens, Doohan works with the World Health Organization (WHO); he was recruited to the organization after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, and was forever changed by the years he spent working in Bangladesh. Now, he’s working on a study of the spread of disease through rats when Dr. Raphael Espinosa, who originally recruited Doohan, asks him to join a WHO watchdog committee on genetic research. Doohan, who has a much more sanguine perspective on genetic research, refuses. The next morning, though, all thoughts of joining Espinosa’s committee are wiped from Doohan's mind as he learns of a disturbing number of cases of a virulent, flu-like illness in the San Francisco area. He volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department, and before he knows it, he’s witness to an ever-increasing number of cases. Each case seems to end in death, and as the number of deaths rise, so does the local panic level.
Soon, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sends in field investigator Dr. Suzanne Synge to help isolate the cause of the illness. She and Doohan begin to work together to find commonalities among the cases. As they look through the case histories and interview some of the patients, they find that most of the cases can be traced to people who attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba. Before long, the CDC, the Public Health Department and the Army Chemical Corps, led by Major Lawrence Hanson, have a stake in the investigation of this strange outbreak.
Their investigation is complicated by several factors. One of them is infighting among the various groups. Major Hanson, for instance, trusts no-one, especially not Doohan. In fact, Hanson is convinced that the outbreak may have been deliberately caused by a hostile nation, and may have military significance. So Hanson does his best to take control of every aspect of the investigation, cutting off Doohan’s and Synge’s access to vital witnesses, records and information.
Doohan’s search for answers is also complicated by his developing relationship with Suzanne Synge. The two begin a passionate affair, but at the same time, Doohan feels that Synge is holding something back. Still, he’s attracted to her, and her help is vital if he’s going to figure out what’s behind the deaths.
Another complication is that it soon becomes clear that the outbreak was deliberately caused. In fact, as Doohan slowly puts together the pieces of the puzzle, he realizes that this virus was synthesized, not natural. It’s not long before Doohan realizes that some very malevolent forces are aligned against him. One force is Hanson and his military team, who do everything possible to hamper Doohan, including trying to have him deported. Another, more dangerous force, is the enemy who started the outbreak. Doohan doesn’t know whether that force is another country or one person or group. What he does know is that someone is desperate to prevent anyone from knowing how and why the victims really died. As he gets closer and closer to the truth, Doohan becomes more and more of a target. So does anyone else who knows anything about the virus. Before the investigation is complete, three of Doohan’s friends are murdered because of what they know.
Despite all of the forces arrayed against him, Doohan manages to get the clues he needs to find out what caused the virus and how and why it was spread. He also gets help from some unexpected sources, including British Intelligence. What Doohan discovers, though, is that he’s in the middle of what amounts to a war for the truth about the deaths. He also learns, almost too late, that he’s become a valuable commodity, since he now has important knowledge. British Intelligence wants what Doohan knows for security purposes; so does the U.S. government/military. So does the group responsible for the creation of the virus. With his life at risk, and several forces competing for him, Doohan manages to isolate the cause of the virus and tries to warn the WHO about the infection. That’s when he’s captured…
There are several compelling aspects of The Nightmare Factor. One of them is the topic – genetic manipulation. Genetic manipulation is highly controversial, and laden with all sorts of ethical implications. Scortia and Robinson dealt with those implications years before they became what we now call “current events.” Yet, the novel doesn’t really preach. For instance, early in the novel, there’s a conversation between Doohan and Espinosa about the value of such research; Espinosa wants to limit it, while Doohan’s more optimistic. The controversy is laid out, but it’s done within the context of the story, so the conversation doesn’t feel like a sermon. Even later, as Doohan realizes the extent to which genetic manipulation can go horribly wrong, the novel focuses on the mystery and on the suspense as Doohan tries to outwit his enemies. The ethical issues are addressed, but they’re not the main point of the story.
Another absorbing element to this novel is the characterization. Calvin Doohan, for instance, comes across as a whole person, marred by life, but not a stock “wounded” character. He’s likable, and it’s easy to cheer for him as he peels away the layers of secrets to get to the truth about the deaths. We feel for as he finds out that most of the people he thought he could trust are not the people he thinks they are. At the same time, he’s no perfect hero. He’s moody, impatient, sometimes gruff, and puts several of his friends in mortal danger.
The other characters are similarly interesting. We discover, as the novel evolves, that they’re all more than they seem on the surface. In fact, it’s that process of discovering who the characters really are that’s as engrossing as anything else in the novel. Even when we find out who’s responsible for the virus, and who participated in the crime, we almost understand their motivations – almost. At the very least, Scortia and Robinson don’t paint these characters as stock “bad guys.”
There’s plenty of action in the novel, too. The pace is fast enough to keep the reader turning pages, and the authors have several plot twists and surprises in store. In fact, in some ways, The Nightmare Factor is reminiscent of a “cliffhanger,” where the hero goes from danger to danger. The Nightmare Factor isn’t a light novel, and it’s not for those who enjoy quiet cozies. For the thriller enthusiast and the science enthusiast, though, I recommend it. To me, it’s an engaging forerunner of the modern medical thriller.