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The Eleventh Plague
John S. Marr and John Baldwin
Harper Collins/Cliff Street Books, 400 pages

The Eleventh Plague
Plagues
For the interested reader, there's a web site associated with the book at http://www.plaguescape.com where there is a great deal more information about the Plagues of Egypt and the modern theories behind their true causes. For the curious, The Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) mentioned in the book is a real electronic network started specifically to create a global system of early detection and timely response to disease outbreaks. And, of course, you can always visit the Centers for Disease Control for official information.
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

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It is a particularly good time to read The Eleventh Plague. The allegations of biowarfare use in the Gulf War and the recent anthrax scare in the news have prompted renewed interest in nature's deadly organisms.

More frightening than Mother Nature striking back at man with her lethal arsenal is someone deliberately releasing these lethal microorganisms in acts of bioterrorism. Certainly, John Marr and John Baldwin haven't come up with a new idea. Bioterrorism has been the subject of a number of books, including Richard Preston's fictional book, The Cobra Event, and Tom Clancy's Executive Orders. What makes this book different, however, is that the villain is a brilliant psychopath with a frightening agenda. And rather than releasing a single infectious agent, he unleashes a number of lethal diseases and toxins.

The Eleventh Plague begins with a series of seemingly unrelated events. A swarm of bees attacks and kills a number of people in San Antonio, Texas. Noted virologist and troubleshooter Dr. Jack Bryne is summoned to San Diego, California, where the young son of a wealthy developer, normally in perfect health, lies on his death bed. His symptoms do not match any common illness and the doctors are mystified. Soon, a young woman is brought in with similar symptoms and within 24 hours, both are dead. The postmortem diagnosis is anthrax, unheard of in the United States. Bryne is perplexed but is quickly drawn to a new problem. Horses are dying of a mysterious disease in Churchill Downs, Kentucky.

The three events are puzzling, but it isn't until Bryne wanders through an Egyptian Exhibit at the Eli Lilly Botanical Gardens that he sees a possible connection. The exhibit shows the ten plagues of Egypt and Bryne realizes with horror that someone may be reconstructing the ten plagues in modern day. He has difficulty convincing people that he is right, and when he finally does, he must then make them believe that he is not the one responsible.

So what can I say about The Eleventh Plague? It's not without its flaws, which I'll discuss in a moment, but I really enjoyed the book. It has all the classic elements of a great story: an old, knowledgeable professional with a secret past; a trustworthy sidekick; an intelligent, eager young student; a young beautiful wife; an old beautiful lover; a suspicious FBI agent who won't admit he's wrong until it's almost too late; and a brilliant psychopath who provides clues for the hero.

The depiction of Ted Kameron, the psychopath, is particularly griping:

"He doubted anyone would ever figure out the Grand Design. He wondered if putting the code on the squirt gun was too obvious. After all, he had already given them many clues. Maybe this time, between the "LMPG" code and the new data on ProMED, there would be someone to run from. He had to stay alert and think like a hunter."
We get a glimpse of what's going on in his mind as he writes and edits the journal that he keeps to record his accomplishments.

I also like the fact that there's a lot of information throughout the book: the diseases, the symptoms, the methodologies, the Biblical lore. They describe the ProMED system, a electronic network linking doctors, veterinarians, infectious disease specialists, and scientists, which actually exists.

Unfortunately, sometimes the authors revert to jargon or fail to explain terms or items sufficiently. They make a reference to Bergey's Manual, which they might have explained is Bergey's Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. One of the toxins used is yohimbé, which is used to treat sexual dysfunction, though you could only infer that from the text. There's a section on prions, infectious proteins, which assumes that everyone already knows what prions are and their connection to Mad Cow Disease. They never explain why aflatoxins fluoresce under ultraviolet light, or why aflatoxins are so deadly. There's a cryptic reference to the possibility that Ebola may have its origins as a plant virus (perhaps eluding to the fact that researchers have been unable to locate an animal vector, despite years of searching).

In that sense, the story reads like a screenplay. There's no penalty for explaining those kinds of things in a book (as sort of a mental aside) and yet the authors choose not to do so. It wouldn't be so noticeable if they weren't so detail rich in some areas and so sketchy in other places. The best explanations come from Kameron's journal entries, as he lovingly explains each step of his "Grand Design". I'm showing my bias here, as I love books that have lots of detail. I love Tom Clancy's books because he practically overwhelms his readers with detail. But you can choose to ignore details that don't influence your understanding of the plot -- you can't, however, fill in the holes left by the author(s) on your own.

There are a few other things that are a bit distracting. Bryne is given a mysterious past that we don't find out about until later in the book. He has a mysterious scar on his arm that he tells people he got while hang-gliding in the Alps. But in fact, it's a wound he sustained when he was held at Pingfan, a Japanese internment camp, where biowarfare experiments were conducted in World War II. The horrors he saw and experienced as a child there are supposed to be Bryne's motivation in finding and stamping out these lethal diseases. Yet he never talks about that time with anyone, not even his wife. I can understand not wanting to dwell on those horrible memories, but I'm not sure why the authors chose to have him be so reticent about those experiences. It's part of the reason that the FBI thinks that Bryne himself may be responsible for the incidents, which in my mind is stretching things just a bit. It makes for a good story, but even a little investigative work should have cleared Bryne immediately.

There's also a bit of trouble with the dates at the beginning of the book. If you read the book, see if you can spot them as well. Then there's the title itself. There is no eleventh plague -- unless, of course, you count the one in the obvious sequel to this book. In fact there aren't even ten plagues, strictly speaking. Several of the plagues are, in fact, merely poisonings.

These are minor points, however. The Eleventh Plague is a very enjoyable book. It's sure to spark interest in the fascinating, if horrifying, topic of infectious disease and bioterrorism/biowarfare.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.


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