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Book review: 'Spiral' by Paul McEuen

The Cornell professor's debut novel is a smart, thrilling tale of intrigue around a biological weapon.

April 18, 2011|By Miles Corwin | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Over the last few decades the intelligent thriller has become an oxymoron. The thriller aspect of many of these books has eclipsed the intelligent narrative.

However, "Spiral" by Paul McEuen represents a return to form. McEuen, a physics professor at Cornell University and a first-time novelist, does a fine job of braiding science, story and suspense to create an engaging and fast-paced novel.

The prologue is set in 1946 when Liam Connor, a young Irish biology prodigy in the Royal Navy, is dispatched to a U.S. vessel in the Pacific after a group of sailors aboard another ship contracted a lethal fungal virus. O'Conner questions a Japanese prisoner, an engineer at a biological weapons unit that had perfected the doomsday weapon, called Uzumaki — or spiral. The prologue ends, literally, with a bang as U.S. forces drop a nuclear bomb on the ship whose crew had been infected.

The book flashes forward about six decades. O'Conner, an emeritus professor of biology at Cornell, Nobel Prize winner and pioneer in nanoscience, jumps off a campus bridge. Police initially rule the death a suicide. When a cluster of silicon and metal micro-robots are found in his stomach, however, Conner's granddaughter, Maggie, and his colleague Jake Sterling know he has been tortured.

They join forces to find the killer, a sadistic Asian assassin named Orchid who is armed with a plethora of high-tech gadgets. The stakes couldn't be higher because Orchid has obtained the Uzumaki, and if she releases it, tens of millions of Americans could be killed, giving China and Japan world primacy. Or, if the Chinese obtain the virus, "the United States would never know … not until it was used," McEuen writes. "Until the Chinese handed it to the North Koreans, the North Koreans sold it to al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda released it [in] a major U.S. city. The most devastating terrorist attack in human history."

Orchid had discovered that O'Conner had been pursuing an antidote for the Uzumaki. She knows that only those who possess the antidote are ensured survival once the apocalyptic weapon is released.

McEuen infuses "Spiral," reminiscent of Michael Crichton's medical thrillers, with fascinating fungus arcana:

— After a fungus invaded British coffee plantations in Ceylon in 1875 and decimated the crops, the English were transformed into a nation of tea drinkers.

— In 17th century Massachusetts, according to one theory, rye infested with a fungus created a hallucinogenic reaction that led to the Salem witch trials, where infected women were put to death.

— When penicillin, the world's most famous fungus, was mass produced during World War II, the lives of countless American soldiers with bacterial infections were saved.

Many thrillers today are so stripped down, so bereft of texture and mood, they resemble screenplays. McEuen, however, animates the book with a strong sense of place, artfully depicting the brooding beauty, the craggy landscapes, the ominous, oppressive weather of upstate New York.

There are times when this intelligent thriller is a bit too intelligent, particularly for readers lacking scientific acuity, whose eyes might glaze over passages dense with nanotechnology, fungal theory and DNA sequencing. And Jake, who evolves into the protagonist as "Spiral" progresses, is sketchily drawn. McEuen describes his years as a soldier during the Gulf War and his present position as a respected Cornell physics professor — but nothing in between, leaving the reader wondering how he progressed from point A to point B. A little more back story would have helped.

These, however, are quibbles. "Spiral" is a thoroughly satisfying thriller.

Corwin is the author, most recently, of the novel "Kind of Blue."

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