Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Viral, by James Lilliefors (hardcover, $25)

There are an overwhelming number of characters and a lot of back-and-forthing in this debut novel. James Lilliefors is a journalist who is probably used to untangling complex stories and having to identify ALL the parties. So, without giving too much away, I hope, here's what you need to concentrate on.

Charles Mallory is the central character. He is a former CIA operative who now is a private intelligence contractor. (Lilliefors advises us through a character that "70% of intelligence work is subcontracted" these days. If true, yikes!) Because of his current assignment for the U.S. government and because of a project his father was interested in, Charles becomes involved in a mystery that involves Africa, both as a place of incredible suffering and of incredible potential.

Jon Mallory is Charles' brother, whom he has hardly seen over the last decade, not even at their father's funeral. Jon is a contributing editor of "The Weekly American," writing about politics. In a rare moment of brotherly contact, Charles tells him an interesting story and sends Jon on his way to Africa to be a "witness." 

After the fact, this is what Jon must bear witness to: Two hundred thousand people have died at the same time in Sundiata (a fictional nation), Africa. How did they die? Why did they die? What does it mean?

Soon people are trying to kill Charles. And anyone who helps him. Then practically everyone with whom he talks. Charles is like a virus himself. And he does determine that it was a virus that killed all those people in Sundiata. But where did a virus that could cause such massive destruction come from?

Lilliefors quotes a fictional (I think) reporter/spy, Arthur Caswell*: The West/America 
... has become overwhelmed by what [Caswell] called moral laziness. He characterized it as an epidemic that worsened proportionally as the world's problems worsened. He had this idea about active endorsement versus passive endorsement, and how we've increasingly come to passively endorse some very terrible things.
This quote is at the heart of Viral.

What does the fact that 200,000 people died in a small, impoverished, corrupt African nation mean to the Western world? Is it merely a blip on the empathy radar before we return to whatever is immediately pressing in our everyday Western lives? If we found out that the U.S. government or U.S. citizens were somehow involved in this disaster, would we do anything about it? Politics can be an amoral bitch sometimes, and the answer is not always clear, Lilliefors intimates.

Charles and the main members of his team -- ex-military, ex-intelligence, technological geniuses -- spend the rest of the book trying to prevent further deaths.

Interesting aside: NDB (non-discernible bio-inoculator), advanced satellite imaging technology, plasmid Destabilization Propellant Gun, quantum encryption supercomputers, nano-drones, Digital Immersion Technology ("digitized, three-dimensional, holographic environment") are all currently available or in development, according to what Lilliefors says on his website (www.jameslilliefors.com). Now that's scary, especially in light of how Lilliefors' characters put them to nefarious uses!

Another aside: Mancala, Buttata, Sundiata are fictional African nations, but they reflect the problems in real countries, making them prey to international interests.

In impeccable journalistic fashion, Lilliefors gives us a lot of information, perhaps too much for a fictional book. Some of his characters seem almost superfluous, even while they give us another building block upon which to decipher the evil plan. (Do you want to take notes the way I did? It might help. And I had to keep referring to the notes to figure out who did or said what to whom and what kind of player he/she was.) What works and is appreciated in nonfiction books sludges up the gears in fiction.

However, this was a thought-provoking book in the best sense. Lilliefors takes what exists -- the real potential for harm that individuals motivated by greed or a higher purpose can do -- and gives us a chilling thriller. Had I but time and worlds enough I would read it again to see how Lilliefors built the layers of his story. He must hope that his readers come away with concern, or at least a curiosity, for the direction the first world is taking in regard to the third world, especially in parts of Africa.

*His name only appears a couple of times, so you don't need to remember him, but I mention him here because this is one of the most memorable quotes in the book.

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