Fatal Cure, Robin Cook

Berkley, 1993, 449 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-14563-8

As somewhat of a genre reader, I rarely get to read books that make it to bestseller lists. Aside from Tom Clancy, most of the current best-selling authors aren’t favorites of mine. Robin Cook is one of these best-selling authors; Though I was aware that he wrote medical thrillers, the two book from him that I had read before in translation (Fever and Brain) didn’t make enough of an impression on me to lead on to further readings. (Unlike, say, Robert B. Parker—but I digress)

The literary circles I frequent often resent “bestsellers” as an inferior form of writing, as if being popular required bad writing, simple plot and cardboard characters. Right. Say what you want about the general dumbing-down of the American public (myth!) but truly bad novels go on the slushpile, not the top-ten lists which at worst might be filled with formulaic plotting and familiar characters, but not incompetence.

After reading Fatal Cure, I’m ready to revise this opinion.

If you’re somewhat familiar with medical thrillers, you already know the plot: Young couple is lured to a hospital in a city far way from home. But! Patients start dying mysteriously, the hospital’s administrators don’t want to talk about it and, of course, our protagonists are quickly threatened as soon as they investigate further.

Oh, I’m sure that most readers who paid good money to buy this book and put it on the charts really liked what they read. Maybe they’re just less demanding. Maybe they really like medical thrillers. Mostly they don’t read 150+ books a year like I do.

Because everything in Fatal Cure reads like a re-run of these 150+ books. With time, avid readers start building up standard templates of familiar stories, and less tolerance for those authors which can’t or won’t surprise them with fresh twist.

For instance: One of the thrills of crime fiction is to keep guessing the identity of the murderer. Ironically, if the reader figures out the mystery before it’s revealed, it definitely lessens the book’s impact, and takes away from the fun of reading the book.

Yes, I did figure out the identity of the bad guy in Fatal Cure. Pretty much from the first scene on; it’s that transparent.

The rest of the book isn’t much better. Every tired plot thread is used shamelessly, from the sick daughter to the sexual harassment subplot to the local sheriff in cahoots with the chief conspirators. So-called “clues” are so obvious that from their very first mention, you can guess how they’ll play later on in the book. So, the young couple buys a house whose owner mysteriously disappeared, but notice a strange smell in the basement. Gee, I wonder what that smell could possibly be…? Not so annoying if they would immediately discover the body, but rather more annoying when no less that 104 pages (69 to 173) pass between smell and body.

It gets worse; not only is the plot clichéd in every conceivable way, but it is also wrapped in an unsubtle authorial message about how bad HMOs truly are and why Americans shouldn’t support such initiatives. (Hey, in Fatal Cure HMOs breed killer administrators. And that too can be guessed early on.)

And yet… and yet… Even though most copies of Fatal Cure could spontaneously combust with nary a tear from me (provided the rest of the libraries stay intact), it should be said that once you make it through the first half of the book, it doesn’t get better but it can be read fairly easily, especially if you’re adept at diagonal reading; most of what is expected to happen, happens, and if you enjoy that type of thing, I can see Fatal Cure as average beach reading.

On the other hand, there’s never a single element to convince me to read another Robin Cook book ever again. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll feel the pain very much.

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