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As can so often happen, I found myself, by complete coincidence, reading two novels in quick succession,
both of which open with a woman's discovery that she is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Although the two stories go on
to be very different ones, there is enough similarity between them for one treatment of the theme to beg comparisons with
the other. This review is not the place for that; if you want to know what I thought of James Morrow's 'SlŠinte, go
to the appropriate page. It is Noel Bruton's The Virus Doctors we are discussing here. If you go on to read both books,
however, you may find yourself, as I did, wondering at the fertility of writers' imaginations and wondering how many other
possible ways there are of approaching the subject.
Mr Bruton keeps us guessing as to the main plot-line. Only after the death of Peter Walton's wife does the
widowed doctor, frustrated by his inability to cure, decide to "go back to basics", moving out of the city and setting himself
up as a freelance medical researcher. Although his motivation is not entirely clear, his personality already has the reader
hooked. When he comes across the Waterstone Institute and its claim to have discovered a successful treatment for MS, the
story moves on apace, as Dr Walton is sucked into the activities of the mysterious researchers with their unconventional approach
The prose, smooth and lucid, never distracts from the task in hand, that of presenting the course of events,
albeit out of chronological sequence, in such a way as both to intrigue and to inform. At the same time, we get a series of
clear pictures, moments in time, every individual aspect with a significance of its own.
"It was in a positive frame of mind that Simmons dipped his tall body into the taxi to convey him to the
Hotel George V."
Ernest Frost, a senior researcher at Biotevix, little suspects the fate that awaits him. We already do. All
that remains to be discovered is how he gets from A to B; and that should be the most interesting part. This was where I started
to lose the thread, not because of any difficulty in following the narrative, but because it was all somehow too contrived.
The possibility that leading researchers could be brought together by an idea so obvious, and yet so incredible that no one
had ever thought of it before, seemed rather facile. Although the scientific detail was essential to its believability, I
soon tired of the rambling philosophical debates between Frost and his colleagues, MŁnzing and Ballard. Only when a female,
Kate Leigh, became involved was my interest revived -- Kate is Bridget Jones with a brain -- and even then I was a little
disappointed at the slightly stereotypical picture that emerged of a woman scientist edged out by her conservative male colleagues.
The inhabitants of the Biotevix building were the kind an outsider expects to meet in a large and secretive commercial
organisation, not those who make up such organisations in real life. Think The Office, and you recognise how realism
can be more effective than the escapist approach favoured here.
It's only when Kate Leigh meets up with Peter Walton that the action truly begins, and this happens further
into the book than I would have liked. Much of the moral and technical discussion immediately following Walton's arrival on
the scene seemed over-ambitious; it was almost as though the author felt he really had discovered the solution to the
world's ills. It is stretching it to expect the reader to engage completely with the hero and heroine in the pages remaining.
Thrown together by their adventures, it is perhaps acceptable that they should form an intimate relationship within hours
of making one another's acquaintance, but, frankly, I never really believed in them as a couple. The geographical settings,
in England, Austria, Switzerland and France, though sometimes cleverly used, were never more than a backdrop for their adventures.
A lot more could have been made of the clash between American and European culture.
The frantic last section does a lot to dispel any earlier tedium. I thoroughly enjoyed the last twenty or
thirty pages, with Kate attempting to escape from her tormentors while the equally tormented Peter tussles with the dilemma
of whether to put his principles before his affection for her. There are enough twists and turns to satisfy the most demanding
reader. At the end, there remained some uneasiness in my mind about Kate's readiness to gun down anyone who gets in her way
-- for a woman so committed to easing the suffering of millions, it seemed not only incongruous but downright immoral (come
to think of it, so did some of her other activities). On the whole, though, her decisiveness makes a refreshing change from
the self-analysis so common in contemporary fiction. All credit to Noel Bruton for this courageous and entertaining first
attempt at a thriller.
ISBN 1 899530 10 X
Published by Starborn Books, 2003
Retail price £
Review by Deborah Fisher
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