White Plague
A novel by James Abel
Book review by Jules Brenner
Berkley, released 1/6/15, 336 pp., $26.95
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Perhaps taking advantage of the Ebola scare still raging in Sierra Leone and touching the U.S. and other advanced nations, as well as our skittish relationship with China, Abel creates a mystery plot that has the scientific credentials that reminds us of Michael Crichton's work.

The state-of-the-art submarine USS Montana, ice-locked in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, is aflame, in the middle of a storm, and in danger of total loss with all aboard. Its cries for help horrifies the Pentagon. Top security staffers call the Director to figure out if a rescue is possible.

No sooner does he send Marine doctor and bioterror expert Joe Rush to lead his team aboard the cutter Wilmington, a floating Coast Guard lab ship devoted to scientific missions, than they learn that, somehow, the Chinese are aware of the pending disaster and is sending a submarine at top speed to the site, thirsting to obtain the advanced technology of its US torpedo system. And, yet, the race to get there first isn't the only pulse-pounding part of the situation.

When Rush reaches the Montana he finds that the survivors appear to be sick, in the throes of an unknown pathogen which they've unknowingly exposed. Their ship is now a floating isolation ward to guard against an unknown contagion for which Dr. Rush isn't exactly trained or prepared.

The appearance of the Chinese sub multiplies the level of fear and tension, cleverly made more tenuous by the Chinese Captain's smooth talk that Joe recognizes as an enemy's attempt at deception. And, how did the Chinese learn about the smitten ship? Joe becomes certain that there's a spy aboard the Wilmington.

Much of this plays out with a strong attention to character and rich dialogue, especially the very convincing nature of Captain Zhou Dongfeng's style of masked speech when he enters into a series of mind games with Rush.

Such things as one team member being married to Rush's ex adds to the personal dynamics, which also features an evolving emotional connection with the arrival of perfect-skinned sub-expert Dr. Karen Vleska, Islandic with an "Ozark lilt."

There's pretty much something happening every nautical mile of this Arctic adult thriller as Abel shows skill in keeping the wheel on a steadily rising course of suspense.

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