The Cobra Event, Richard Preston

Ballantine, 1997, 432 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-40997-3

Most accounts of Richard Preston’s previous non-fiction book, The Hot Zone, commented on its terrifyingly high suspense factor. This reviewer wasn’t an exception, going as far as to question the appropriateness of horror novels in the face of The Hot Zone‘s realistic subject matter of viral plagues.

Well, Preston seemingly listened to the reviewers and wrote The Cobra Event, a gripping novel of -what else?- biological terrorism in the continental United States.

It begins as a teenager dies gruesomely in a high school art class. Soon, a CDC medical pathologist is on her way to New York to see what caused the death. She discovers that the teenager isn’t the only victim… and that the deaths might be part of a biological warfare test run.

Viral infections are scary enough that there’s really no need to imagine cold-blooded terrorists hatching a global depopulation plan. But that’s where The Cobra Event chooses to go, and the result is gripping.

This novel’s greatest strength -credibility- is almost a given from the author of three non-fiction books. Even though there’s no stopping an author from inventing spurious facts, false references and imaginary events (it’s fiction, after all), this reviewer is firmly convinced that careful homework shows. It informs the narrative and gives it an extra layer of credibility that is essential.

The Cobra Event is, right down to its very narrative, loaded and enhanced with facts, descriptions, actions and plotting that have to be modeled on real-life. The most immediate effect is to assign an unusually high plausibility to a basic idea (terrorists do bad things) that had been done time and time again elsewhere. A less-obvious effect is to engender a delightful feeling of dread. This is not a novel for the squeamish: many deaths are very violent and clinically described. The book contains two full-fledged autopsy scenes that will make even the most hardened reader squirm in their seats.

But, as many inept techno-thriller writers have demonstrated inadvertently, credibility isn’t enough for a successful book. You have to make it serve the story and to deliver a novel that’s compelling in its own right. Above all, it must be presented in a way that will be accessible to thousands of airplanes passengers all over the world.

Here too, Richard Preston excels. As readable as The Hot Zone was, The Cobra Event is even better. Good sympathetic characters, fast pacing, hypnotically readable prose all merge and make up a superior thriller. Down to the conclusion, which isn’t as tidy and wrapped-up as we would have liked to believe… just like a real-life bio-warfare event would presumably be.

Memorable, entertaining and credible, The Cobra Event is pretty good effort for a first novel, letting us speculate on a long and successful dual career for Preston, alternating non-fiction books with novels.

BRIEFLY: In comparison, Pierre Ouellette’s The Third Pandemic is, if you’ll pardon the pun, anaemic. Though it deals knowledgeably with a plague caused by bacteria and doesn’t stop right before the abyss, The Third Pandemic isn’t exactly enjoyable. Good set-pieces can’t erase the bad taste left by an annoying pessimism about human nature, very suspicious plotting, anti-technological bias (the second-to-last paragraph of the book is almost offensive) and lack of large-scale vision when dealing with a global disaster. The writing is also unnervingly ineffective, transforming exciting scenes in hum-drum descriptions. Read Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event instead.

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