From former ER physician and novelist Clement, who moved into hardcover with 2001’s Mutant, a gripping but shallow thriller about mutant genes in the food chain, now does his best work yet, building solid characters and the biggest US epidemic since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.
SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) first appears in China, now hits the States, and strikes Buffalo, where St. Paul’s Hospital fights a frightening load of germ-laden cases, usually of the very old, with no cure in sight. Even worse, the Palliative Care unit (patients near death, often in pain) notes an even larger death rate than SARS can explain, as well as clusters of out-of-body experiences (OOBs). As it happens, a shadowy figure slips into the unit at night and injects terminal patients with drugs that take their recipient to the very edge of death. For personal reasons, the figure wants taped anecdotal evidence of OOBs from the dying. By coincidence, Dr. Stewart Deloram, the hospital’s resident genius in critical care, is also the world’s leading authority on OOBs. The hero, Dr. Earl Garnet, who heads ER, has been boosted to vice president medical, second only to the CEO, and, though forced into a hospital-wide pain-management audit, seems to have overdosed a patient with morphine (but we know better). His wife, Dr. Janet Graceton, the staff’s top obstetrician, is eight months pregnant but still works daily and will be the heroine-in-peril. Various suspects include tough-spoken hospital chaplain Father Jimmy Fitzpatrick, who glides about administering humor and prayer, and not so lighthearted Dr. Thomas Briggs, Earl’s emergency medicine protégé, who laughs and drawls like a Tennessee hillbilly.
Smashing ER scenes, code blues, and a masked staff in orange space suits underpin a page-turner plotted for heart. Well done, nearing Tess Garritsen’s bone-chillers.