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Move over, Robin Cook
by Nancy Kress
Review by L.D. Meagher
(CNN) -- A United States Senator who might be running for president collapses during a speech and dies. A small-town hospital in southern Maryland is suddenly deluged by people dying from cerebral strokes. The patients all have something in common -- they and the senator are African Americans. They all seem to be suffering from a form of malaria.
Malaria? How can a disease virtually unknown in the United States suddenly start killing people, especially black people? That is the mystery at the heart of "Stinger" by Nancy Kress. The author, a veteran of the science fiction genre, bursts into the mainstream with a medically-themed techno thriller. Move over, Robin Cook. There's a bold new voice on your block.
Working from opposite ends of the outbreak, FBI Agent Robert (Don't Call Me Bob) Cavanaugh and CDC epidemiologist Dr. Melanie Anderson join forces to unearth the cause of, and the reason for, the bizarre malaria outbreak. Thanks to a freewheeling reporter in Baltimore, the disease becomes front-page news and as the death toll mounts, so does the apprehension of the general public.
The investigation determines the strain of malaria sweeping through the mid-Atlantic states is tailored specifically to attack people carrying the sickle cell blood trait. The vast majority of people with that trait are black, though smaller populations with roots in India and the Mediterranean also carry it. The next question is obvious: was this parasite genetically engineered to carry out genocide against African Americans?
Kress weaves the racial tension into the very fabric of her story. Anderson is the only African American investigating the outbreak. As she ponders the science, she also struggles with the social implications. She's convinced the disease is a terrorist weapon. Cavanaugh is not convinced, but he won't let go of the case until he's sure. Their dogged pursuit of the truth leads them into ever-deeper hot water, especially when the evidence begins to point toward their own employer -- the U.S. government.
There are no helicopter chases or stadiums exploding in "Stinger"; Kress doesn't need those kinds of crutches to prop up her plot. Instead, she builds the suspense from within, carrying the reader along at an ever-increasing tempo without resorting to the thriller genre clichés that litter works by much more famous writers. Her story is devilishly inventive, her characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they wrestle with important issues -- medical and ethical -- every step of the way.
"Stinger" isn't about shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles. The title refers to the disease vector of malaria-mosquitoes. The novel demonstrates that even the smallest of weapons can pack an explosive punch.
L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.