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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Devil's Cure

Reviewed: September 27, 2002
By: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: HarperCollins Books
443 Pages, $9.99

In The Devil's Cure we have a novel which hovers between the thriller territories usually occupied by Robin Cook and Thomas Harris. That is to say we have a novel which is one part medical thriller and one part serial killer.

David Haines in the serial killer, a man driven by an extreme religious mania. His madness centers on the purity of blood. It seems that people he considers impure don't deserve to have any. Haines is in prison when we meet him, but it appears that he is still having a profound effect on the body count. He has recruited disciples among some of the prison personnel and has been able to establish a kind of mail order madness cult by communicating directly with some of his groupies on the outside.

It is during the investigation of a murder committed by one of Haines' followers that we meet FBI agent Kevin Sheldrake, the profiler who tracked Haines down three years earlier. Sheldrake, a former religious cult victim himself, was severely traumatized by his work on that case, and most of his superiors feel he is now damaged goods. They don't want to listen to the idea that Haines has followers until Sheldrake, operating outside the usual chain of command, proves it beyond a doubt.

The third major character in the novel is Dr. Laura Donaldson. Her obsession is with finding a cure for cancer, an obsession made more urgent by her sister's illness. A routine blood screening for HIV at the facility where Haines is incarcerated turns up the fascinating fact that his blood is full of cancerous cells, and that his immune system seems to be handling all of them before he can ever actually get sick. Haines' blood, the blood of a man on death row with just days left to live, may contain the cure she and so many others have been looking for.

Haines is a tough case. We know he is obsessed with the purity of his own bodily fluids so when he finally agrees to allow samples to be taken we can predict what will happen next. Haines stages a bloody escape with Laura as his temporary hostage. When she eludes him he sets out, with the help of his surrogate killers, to eliminate anyone who might know anything about the potential cure.

The FBI are torn between the need to track and capture or kill  him and the need to preserve him for testing. Laura is torn between her duty to medicine and her certain knowledge that the man is a deadly killer. Kevin is tortured by his need to reenter Haines' way of thinking in order to track him down. he still hasn't  recovered from the last time he had to do this. It has cost him his emotional and physical health as well as his marriage. He lives with the fear that success might cost him his sanity.

This set up provides us with all the ingredients for a chase thriller with lots of possibilities for mayhem, deduction and eventual success or failure. Since we start in the middle of the action, so to speak, there's also lots of room for Oppel to explore the backgrounds of his characters and reveal to us what has shaped them. He does this quite effectively, providing us with some insights and making them more than just cardboard heroes and villains.

Kenneth Oppel will be better known to younger readers than to adults. He is the author of a 16 books for children and young adults, including a highly rated series of fantasy novels about bats, the first of which was Silverwing. He is sufficiently famous in children's literature circles that he was one of those chosen to read at the Skydome when J.K. Rowling was doing the tour for her fourth Harry Potter novel.

This was his first novel for adults, and it probably won't be his last.

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