A ragtag team, including a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist and a reporter, aims to thwart a potential epidemic in Justice’s debut thriller.
After immunologist Kate O’Neal blew the whistle on her boss, CDC director Sherrod Simpson, for misappropriating donations, she was transferred from Atlanta to Mobile, Alabama. Now, with her research grants and funding cancelled, Kate is effectively in charge of nothing—that is, until Mobile happens to become the hot spot for a possible outbreak. A shrimp boat, the Helena, arrived at a pier there with its crewmembers stricken with a severe respiratory illness, and a second boat, the Magnolia, soon crashed into the same pier, its crew similarly afflicted. After Simpson, who survived the aforementioned scandal, closes the case prematurely, declaring it an isolated incident, Kate contacts investigative journalist Jimmy Falcone, who’d previously broken the corruption story. When the U.S. Coast Guard gets reports of a large, reddish patch of algae floating in the Gulf of Mexico, Cmdr. Steve Phillips contacts self-taught algae expert and retired chemical engineer Thuy Piseth. It turns out that algae blooms can produce aerosolized toxins, and Thuy has already attributed the algae’s increase to fertilizer runoff from Bobby Lee Swagart’s company, Florida Lawn and Landscape. Soon Swagart and Simpson both go on the lam. Justice excels at coupling scientific explanations with descriptive details, as when the abundance of algae results in “hundreds of square miles of ocean the color of blood.” Although the novel initially centers on the bloom’s threat, it gradually shifts focus to the team trying to bring down Swagart and Simpson as well as to a concurrent subplot involving a Mexican cartel trying to get heroin into the United States. Surprisingly, the latter storyline is the more engaging one, as drug kingpin Miguel Suarez uses the chaos of people evacuating the Gulf of Mexico area to flee the Mexican army. This leads to intense gunfights, while Kate and her team face far fewer direct obstacles and menaces. Occasional errors prove distracting, however; for example, Coast Guard Lt. Jemison’s name is spelled three different ways.
A smart thriller with an enjoyable variety of characters and subplots.