There is a certain tendency among authors, particularly of thrillers, to exhibit something I call Look What I Know syndrome. Symptoms include unnecessary technical specificity (a rifle is never simply a rifle, it’s an M4A1 carbine with adjustable scope), acronym overload, and awkwardly shoehorned dialogue on topics like Masonic history and airplane manufacture that reads like Wikipedia articles in quotation marks.
As a physics professor at Cornell University, McEuen has a tough time suppressing his teacherly instincts, occasionally weighing down his otherwise well-constructed debut novel, Spiral — about a (surprise!) Cornell professor trying to contain a deadly strain of fungus weaponized by the Japanese during WWII — with extended lessons in nanotechnology and saprobiology. The characters, nearly all scientists themselves, are initially burdened by their expertise, but things start heating up once they get off the campus and into a game of cat and mouse with a deadly female assassin also searching for the pathogen.
The assassin, of course, is just another thriller trope, the Unstoppable Killing Machine (see also: an albino monk or a blond giant with analgesia), but McEuen conjures up enough nuance by making her Chinese and giving her a vendetta against the Japanese who first developed the biological weapon. As it progresses, the story starts to grow on you, not unlike the fungus, as McEuen eventually learns his own lesson: Show, don’t tell. B