SPIRALS by William Patrick


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An intriguing but highly uneven bio-medico-horror thriller--starting strong with DNA-research scares, then drifting into poorly paced flashbacks, and winding up in hysterical, murky mad-scientist melodrama. Peter McKusick, M.D. and Ph.D., is doing interferon research at the half-academic/half-commercial research lab on the Harvard U. campus circa 1980; he lives with three-year-old daughter Kitty--apparently the offspring of McKusick's affair with anthropologist Kathleen, who was killed in an accident when they were both doing research in Colombia. (Kitty resembles Kathleen in amazing detail.) And when Kitty starts to become mysteriously ill, the local anti-Harvard forces (who have always protested about the dangers of DNA research) claim that she has picked up a nasty bug in her father's lab. But is there some other possible reason for Kitty's illness? And why has McKusick kept her existence secret from the dead Kathleen's father Lee Albriton? Well, the answers are then hinted at in a long flashback to 1976 Colombia: Kathleen is studying primate infanticide (a detailed digression that's only tangentially relevant); McKusick is getting chummy with renegade biologist Jack Stasson, who has an enigmatic wife and freakishly precocious son; Kathleen is killed in a car crash. But the Truth (which many readers, including Ira Levin, will guess at early on) only emerges in the novel's hectic final section--as McKusick rushes the dying Kitty to Colombia for a gene transfer operation; the pursuing Albriton violently interrupts the surgery, bringing Kitty back to a Boston hospital, where she soon withers into ""senile miosis""; and the wounded, crazed McKusick still madly tries to repair Kitty's wayward genes (the result of her bio-tech, artificial conception). . . before himself dying a DNA-related death. First-novelist Patrick has a good many promising bio-thriller ingredients here; his scene-by-scene narration is smoothly readable, especially in the father/daughter charm of the opening chapters. Unfortunately, however, his storytelling, seemingly assured at first, is soon revealed to be largely amateurish: the supposed Big Secret of Kitty's origin is kept hidden at the cost of pace, credibility, and character; subplots appear, then trickle away. And, perhaps most crucially for the genre, the science arrives too much and too late, in sudden little chunks of indigestible technologese. With forceful editing, then, this might have been topnotch medical suspense. (Ironically, Patrick is himself an editor--in the strong Science and Medicine division of Harvard U. Press.) As it is, it's a disappointing hybrid--but readers drawn in by those engaging first chapters may find enough arresting moments along the way to keep them steadily engrossed, if far from steadily satisfied. (For DNA thrills, Desmond Bagiey's The Enemy remains the unchallenged standout.)

Pub Date: Aug. 31st, 1983
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin