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Outbreak by Robin Cook (Putnam's: $17.95; 368 pp.)

February 15, 1987|Jonathan Kellerman | Kellerman is a medical school professor whose most recent novel is "Blood Test" (Athenum/NAL-Signet)

People are afraid of the doctor. Robin Cook, a physician himself, knows this well and has exploited it handsomely in five of his six novels. This, the seventh, is no exception.

The story line is standard Cook: medical disaster, shapes of conspiracy, good doctor battles hordes of evil doctors, happy ending.

To wit: A viral plague so nasty it makes AIDS look like sniffles, has traveled from its origins in Africa to the United States, where it asserts itself rudely in slick, for-profit hospitals and clinics operated by aggressively marketed pre-paid health-maintenance organizations. The initial victims are doctors who've been mugged, usually ophthalmologists--practitioners of a specialty not usually associated with chills and thrills scenario. (Cook, himself, is an ophthalmologist. Psychological interpretations will be studiously avoided in this review.)

The afflicted eye doctors infect their patients, their co-workers, their mistresses and spouses. All victims die rapidly and horribly, and news of the plague reaches the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Marissa Blumenthal, a young, sweet, idealistic pediatrician working at the CDC is assigned the responsibility of investigating the scourge and gradually becomes convinced that a Machiavellian scheme is afoot. To reveal more is to give away whatever plot is contained in the pages of this rather tame thriller.

Despite a painfully artless prose style, Dick and Jane dialogue, absurd motivation for the conspiracy, and a 30-year-old heroine so omigosh-naive and helpless she sets feminism and the image of women in medicine back several decades, "Outbreak" will undoubtedly be a best seller. For the key to Cook's success is his ability to tap the love-hate-terror relationship that exists between dispensers and recipients of health care--dredging up the helplessness that we feel when confronted by disease and disability and an expert in white who controls our destinies, carrying our fantasies to the what's-the-worst-that-can-happen extreme and serving them back to us at grade-school readability level.

"Outbreak" is about as similar as a book can be to a half-hour television episode and still remain a book. Every fact and clue is laid out for the reader in cookbook fashion (no pun intended) then explained and re-explained with pedagogical fervor. Good guys are all good, bad guys are all bad, each member of the cast reacts as predictably as an integer in an equation. The bad guys give the good guys a tumble for their money, but the good guys win on cue, girl gets boy, and the world's just a little bit safer--for the time being.

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