Part science whodunit, part romance, part travelogue, this tale makes magic of the most ghastly of subjects—a cholera epidemic in fin-de-siècle Egypt.
Star pupil of the legendary Pasteur, Louis Thuillier heads breathlessly on a steamship to Alexandria. With brio, Roiphe (Secrets of the City, 2003, etc.) renders that fabled city of the mystic East. Now, however, its exotic visage is disfigured by the ugliest of plagues. Giddy, cramped, vomiting and finally collapsing blue in the face, the townsfolk need saving from cholera, a horror that’s flummoxed physicians since Hippocrates. Thuillier’s mission? Find a cause, manufacture a cure. Yet the cosmopolis confronts him not only with a labyrinthine cacophony of winding alleys and wailing muezzins, but a war zone of colonial intrigue. The French consulate jousts with the British, and even purportedly disinterested scientists wield imperialist banners: Thuillier and his compatriot crew must contend in a Great Race with Germany’s Robert Koch, conqueror of tuberculosis and rival of the Frenchmen in this life-and-death science fair. Brilliant, feverish and earnest, Thuillier hunts germs, pausing from his microscope only long enough to fall for the luscious Este, daughter of a local august Jewish doctor. Here, too, there’s rivalry: Thuillier must defeat a British twit who, himself spurned by Este, nefariously accuses her father of espionage. A wicked plotter, Roiphe scores, too, by making not only love and fighting but, of all things, scientific discovery, a fascinating adventure.
Recalling eminent Victorian fare, this is historical fiction as high art.