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Patient Zero, UK cover

Patient Zero, US cover

Jonathan Maberry is a comparatively new horror writer who won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel in 2007 for Ghost Road Blues. Since then his work rate has been prodigious, publishing a novel and a non-fiction book a year, although he is still better known to American readers than to British ones. The UK edition of his new novel Patient Zero aims to change all that.

Joe Ledger is an ex-Marine now serving in the Baltimore Police Department. In the best thriller tradition he's a smart-mouthed wise guy, but there's more to Ledger than just Maverick tendencies:

I'm self-aware enough to know that I have a somewhat fractured personality. Not exactly multiple personality disorder, but clearly there were different drivers at the wheel depending on my mood, and depending on my needs. Over the years I'd been able to identify and make peace with the three dominant personalities: the Modern Man, the Warrior and the Cop. (p. 56)

Ledger is picked up on the beach by three men who are clearly Secret Service or another Government organization. Faced with a choice of a fight or accompanying them as they request, he goes with the situation, and at a remote location that's been co-opted into a makeshift Federal facility, he finds himself confronted by a terrorist. Moreover, a terrorist that he shot dead earlier in the week. Ledger and the mysterious Department of Military Sciences are confronted by an outbreak of zombies that is being orchestrated by an alliance of Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist groups.

What makes the cabal ranged against the DMS different from other groups is that is an expedient alliance funded by a Machiavellian pharmaceutical tycoon intent on scaring the US into changing its policy, and in the process making him super-rich. Both tycoon and terrorists are using the other side, but who is the most ruthless only becomes clear toward the very end.

Ledger and the teams fight a number of set-piece battles of escalating intensity with groups of zombies, until, in a rare pause for rest Ledger has the time and space to think through what the terrorist's true target is. That it's obvious to the reader after less than sixty pages is one of Maberry's few missteps on the first read (to be a truly satisfying thriller, I would say, the reader needs to be about ten pages ahead of the protagonist, reinforcing the reader's feeling of superiority without making the protagonist unbelievably stupid). Instead it takes Ledger another three hundred pages to reach the right conclusion.

The other (slight) misstep is that Maberry's protagonist narrates the novel in first person—thereby reducing the sense of tension. If Ledger is narrating the novel, it's a good bet that he's survived, unless Maberry plans to give his thriller a truly transcendental finale, but changing the world beyond all recognition doesn't seem to be his intention. In offering the reader that crumb of comfort Maberry might in fact argue that he's shown a rare moment of mercy, because even with it, at times the tension ratchets up to a ferocious level.

Here is a passage which shows Maberry at his best. Ledger has just expressed his fear of the psychological consequences of slaughtering dozens, even hundreds of "walkers" (as Maberry calls the zombies), and of losing comrades. Then the moment of comparative calm passes, and at that moment

I drew a breath as two more walkers shuffled into the corridor, then three more, then nine. They moaned like lost souls, though I wondered if they were truly without souls or if in some dreadful way the person that these creatures had once been was somehow trapped in those undead bodies; caught there with no way to control the killing machine that their bodies had become, watching with awful impotence as they shambled toward murder or death. (p. 258)

It's a moment of unexpected insight amid the slaughter that combines beauty and horror, and shows what the author is capable of.

Patient Zero is also a deeply disturbing book at times, not because of the zombies, but because if you substitute SARS or Ebola for the Undead, it is scarily plausible. Writers of thrillers and chillers have been using fashionable fears since Wilkie Collins tapped into mid-Victorian xenophobia and paranoia in The Woman in White. It's a trend that continued through early horror such as Dracula, as well as the spy novels and mundane thrillers bracketing both World Wars (with a rotating gallery of villains from the Chinese Fu Manchu to Germans, Fascists to Communists), until the fall of the Berlin Wall removed all the old certainties—for a while.

What perhaps makes this decade different from previous epochs is the paranoia of the moment, as Western governments who have lost their moral authority under the searchlight of media scrutiny try instead to scare ever-more sceptical populaces into accepting increasing curtailments on civilian liberty, without revealing to terrorists how much the intelligence services know of their assailant's plans. It's an unsettling state of mind that Maberry cleverly taps into.

Maberry is a journalist by training, and it shows in the magpie-like accumulation of detail, piling acronym upon explanation upon elucidation. His pacing is good, his characterization is for the most part rounded, and the result is at times almost overwhelming.

That specificity can also be irritating. One of the boffins notes that Joe Ledger is also the name of a character in Marvel's Doctor Spectrum series. The villainous Sebastian Gault's name is unusual enough to trigger a search; while it could be an homage to either William Campbell Gault or William Hope Hodgson (who used Gault as a character name), the comic-book reference makes it more likely the nod is to Lost's Gault—it's one of several instances of a preoccupation with pop culture in-jokes about the character's names, which reaches its nadir when Ledger replies to an introduction to the scientist Hu, "Doctor Who? This some kind of goofy code name or something?" (p. 161); although there may be some who enjoy spotting the references, and as an aside, at least Maberry shows more restraint than did Gareth Roberts and Russell T. Davies, in the Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp," when they filled the dialogue with Agatha Christie titles.

In the end there isn't quite enough back-story on Gault, who goes from grieving schoolboy to billionaire in eight years and two pages to make him entirely credible. And that it's Gault— a westerner—who is the one to have a (self-interested, admittedly) shot at redemption instead merely highlights the Arab fanatics as the cartoon stereotypes it seemed Maberry sought to avoid in the early pages—although to be fair to Maberry, within a thriller it's hard to depict mass murderers as anything but stereotypes without derailing the narrative pace. It also seems churlish to complain that the Afghans are there simply to be villains or slaughtered when the Brits are the only other nation to intrude on Maberry's meta-verse. But how much more interesting it would have made Patient Zero had Hu been an Afghani scientist, or an American Muslim—who must have faced their own crises after 9/11. Instead Maberry sadly perpetuates the stereotype of all Muslims as terrorists or victims.

But I'm breaking my own rule to review what the book is, rather than what it isn't. Maberry's intent is clearly to play the percentages rather than to take risks, and he's more interested in comfort reading than challenging people's expectations, but within those parameters (and here I risk damning-with-faint-praise, or even sounding patronizing, but that isn't my intention) Patient Zero is a fast-paced thriller that's amongst the best of its genre, and which will win the writer many new readers, plaudits and perhaps awards—and deservedly so.

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Future Bristol, of which reviewers have been saying nice things. His next book is the first of two novels from HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot Books imprint, Winter Song, which is scheduled for publication on October 1st.

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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