Skeptic, Holden Scott

St. Martin’s, 1999, 376 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96928-7

Looking at the world through tabloid newspaper glasses, it seems that the strange, the unusual, the supernatural and the just plain weird is constantly threatening to invade our so-called-reality. The universe described by the New York Times, or any other “mainstream” media, seems hopelessly constrained, boring in its lack of excitement, pathetic in its self-explanatory fashion. But wait! The Loch Ness monster will be captured! Aliens will land on the White House lawn! Even the humble vampires want nothing worse than to be our friends!

It’s difficult to gauge how many people gobble up fantastic stories as honest truth, or even how many people might be tempted to believe in some of it. Polls routinely indicate that a significant proportion of Americans believe that telepathy exists, that aliens are among us, that angels routinely intervene in their lives and there’s got to be something in all these JFK conspiracy theories.

There’s definitely a potential for a few hundred novels on the subject of skepticism and so-called reality. When a thriller called Skeptic comes across our desks for perusal, it’s hard not to expect some kind of definitive statement on the subject. But while an intriguing novel, Holden Scott’s first book isn’t quite up to the task.

Oh, it’s not as if there isn’t a lot of stuff in these 376 pages. From a medical research center in Boston to a raid deep inside Chinese lines, this is the type of thriller that sacrifices plausibility for maximum bang; avid readers of the genre will love it if only because it shows them something new.

The plot revolves around a scientific discovery that more or less validates the concept of ghosts. Through a complex and not-quite-credible mechanism involving viruses, it seems that deceased people’s “spirits” can communicate with the living. Now mix in a dangerous Chinese super-spy, a political assassination, a CIA agent as beautiful as she’s deadly and you’ve got an interesting story.

There are a few serviceable characters, including the requisite competent/rebellious/tortured doctor hero, the sexy CIA agent and the eeevil antagonist. There are a few good gadgets, including a (fictional?) type of weaponry not seen anywhere else yet. There are gruesome autopsy scenes that will make your stomach churn. There are chases, escapes, gunfights and explosions. There’s even a massive plot to take over the world, if you still wanted something of the sort.

But there’s only one little tiny instance of supernatural doing, and it’s almost an afterthought thrown in at the last minute by the author. But as for the main plot, there’s nothing that warrant belief of skepticism; Scott does his suspension-of-disbelief techno-babble so well that there’s no need to be skeptic.

Leaving that aside, Skeptic remains a better-than-average thriller, thanks to effective writing, memorable incidents and a strong dose of originality. Yes, Scott does get carried away from time to time and his grandiose conspiracy is simultaneously too over-the-top and seemingly useless that it’s likely to inspire more giggles than chills. But when considering the novel’s overall freshness, that doesn’t seem too bad. Much like tabloid newspaper readers, thriller fans would rather read blatantly ridiculous material than to be stuck in the same old reality.

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