A science journalist with bogeyman instincts, Richard Preston writes to scare. Last year, my teenage daughter had nightmares after reading The Hot Zone, his nonfiction best-seller about the Ebola virus, the first time that had happened since she was a little girl and was spooked badly by the TV miniseries Salem’s Lot. In Preston’s new book, the appalling subject is biological terrorism, and while The Cobra Event is a novel, it’s a novel whose ”nonfiction roots,” as the author tells us in the prologue, ”run deep.” Unhappily, I take him at his word.
After a New York City high school student — suffering from nothing more than a mild head cold, presumably — goes into violent convulsions and dies, Dr. Alice Austen, a public-health officer with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is sent to investigate. The autopsy (grisly-scene alert: Patricia Cornwell’s morgues seem tame by comparison) reveals that the dead girl’s central nervous system was ravaged, and her brain turned into a ”glassy pudding,” by some unknown but fast-replicating virus. When two other identical fatalities — a homeless man and an antiques dealer — are reported, Austen turns medical sleuth, cleverly tracing the source of the infection to a couple of wooden novelty boxes, each containing a toy cobra that jumps out, spraying a little puff of contaminated dust at the touch of a spring mechanism. Apparently, there’s yet another serial killer on the loose — this one using ”black biology” as his murder weapon. And the manhunt is on. Although Preston sets up his plot with uncluttered efficiency, he never manages to find a smooth way to integrate factual material (and he has plenty of it, all depressing) into his narrative. So he ends up, time and again, just braking the story, stopping it cold, to present long, finger-pointing essays about the ”invisible history” of worldwide biological-weapons development.
But for all of its ragged pacing and generic characters (the terrorist, as it turns out, is a classic mad scientist, inexplicably bent on thinning the earth’s population), the novel still manages to grab you with the authenticity of its scientific detective work and haunt you with its sheer plausibility. (I won’t soon forget the image of deadly ”brainpox” being cooked like tomato soup in a poky Manhattan apartment.) The Cobra Event is an uneven thriller but a first-rate work of muckraking fiction, and a cautionary tale whose implied advice couldn’t be any more futile: When those invisible ”weaponized particles” hit the air, don’t breathe. Just don’t breathe. This book scared the living daylights out of me, and I’m hiding it from my daughter. B