Plum Island, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1997, 574 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60540-9

Hey, guess what, constant reader? It’s summer. Uncovered sun, oppressive humidity, TV reruns… Like most winter-hardened Canadians, I suddenly feel the need to stop all activities, sit in the shade and work really hard at doing absolutely nothing. As there is a definite limit to the number of hours you can cat-nap -believe it or not- it’s always a good idea to keep a good seat-of-your-pants thriller to fill in the rest of the day.

Chances are that you won’t be able to find much better than Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island in the summer-reading category. A big fat thriller mixing tension with smart-ass narration, this is one book that will keep you interested through it all without necessarily requiring excessive amounts of concentration. Just perfect for your summer-addled mind.

Plum Island isn’t as much about a story as it’s about a character, our wisecracking narrator John Corey. Appropriately enough for a summer read, our novel begins with its hero in semi-vacation, actually on disability leave after a serious three-bullet incident in New York City. Temporarily relocated on the eastern edge of Long Island, Corey is, in theory, free to read as many fat thrillers as he’d want to.

That is, if two people he knew didn’t have the misfortune to get killed in what initially seems to be a messy robbery. It’s not, of course, and as Corey digs deeper in the case, he discovers small-town scandals and suddenly has a lot to learn about pirate treasures and biological warfare. Limping and annoying his way to a solution, Corey even gets to sleep with two women and shoot a few people. All very satisfying. Or sign that you went from drowsy from dreaming in your lawn chair.

At 550+ pages, Plum Island might have felt considerably longer if it wasn’t for Demille’s narration. John Corey is true-blue NYPD cop, with an extra dash of wittiness. His eye for detail and odd observation really help at giving life to the novel, and that’s not even mentioning the dialogue. Expect to laugh out loud a few times: Fortunately for us, Corey doesn’t like everyone he meets, and it’s invariably more fun to see the fireworks between our fearless protagonist and his least favorite characters.

The thriller mechanics are as efficient as they can be from a writer with nearly a dozen other thrillers to his name. The slow accumulation of clues is steady, and even the red herring scenes are efficient, such as the memorable visit to a biological research center. A professional product from beginning to end.

Still, there are lengths. They get worse as the sneering humor evaporates, more characters die and suddenly, we’re in straight no-joke thriller with man-against-man, man-against-nature and man-against-himself life-and-death conflicts. The last hundred pages stretch beyond reasonable length and even the most indulgent summer readers might feel a few faint touches of exasperation.

But hey, guess what? Doesn’t matter. As you lie down, sweltering in thirty-degree heat, you’ll feel grateful for yet more time spent with John Corey in the cold, humid, windy shores of Long Island. There’s plenty in Plum Island to keep even the most demanding summer reader interested. Forget your bookmark and pick up your sun-tan lotion, because you’re going to be reading for a while.

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