Category Archives: Robin Cook

We Fear What We Just Don’t Know*

As this is posted, it’s 53 years since the opening of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. As you’ll know, it’s a fictional re-telling of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Miller used the play to speak out about the anti-communist paranoia – the McCarthyism – of the early 1950s. In the play, we see how fear and lack of understanding can end up in tragedy, and we’ve certainly seen it in real life, too.

That plot point can also add to a crime novel, too. For one thing, it seems to be a human characteristic. For another, it adds suspense and sometimes character layers.

For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is faced with three murders. All of the victims were somehow associated with the Badwater Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse.  The clinic makes use of both western medicine and Navajo spiritual and healing traditions, and there are people from both schools of thought who don’t like what’s happening there. So, there is more than one possible murderer. Then, a would-be assassin targets Sergeant Jim Chee. Now, he’s drawn into the investigation. It turns out that Navajo beliefs in skinwalkers – witches who can take other shapes – plays an important role in the novel. So does the fear of falling under the influence of a skinwalker.

Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk is the story of Boston-area neuroscientist Dr. Edward Armstrong, who is doing work on possible medical treatments for depression. He’s been hired by a new company to create a psychotropic therapy, and he’s excited at the idea of making headway on his research. He and his team are under a great deal of pressure to come up with something quickly, since the pharmaceutical company won’t make a profit if he doesn’t deliver. Then, Armstrong gets what he believes is a breakthrough. He’s been dating a nurse, Elizabeth Stewart, who is renovating a home that’s been in her family for hundreds of years. In fact, one of her ancestors who lived there was executed on suspicion of witchcraft. It turns out that the hallucinations and other symptoms used as evidence were actually caused by ergot growing below the basement. Armstrong is fascinated by the idea of using ergot’s psychotropic effects in his research, and he and his team get to work. It ends up, though, that there are tragic consequences that no-one had considered.

M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider begins as Constable Hamish Macbeth takes some time away from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. Macbeth is not exactly given a warm, cheerful welcome, and the feeling is mutual. Still, he tries to do the best he can to carry out his duties. One of the villagers, William Mainwaring, is possibly even more disliked than Macbeth is. He and his wife, Agatha, are English ‘incomers’ who’ve taken up crofting. But it’s suspected that Mainwaring is involved in some dubious activities. What’s more, he’s contemptuous of the locals, and Agatha isn’t much better. Then, Agatha complains to Macbeth that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. Macbeth isn’t superstitious, and he’s no fan of the Mainwarings, but he has to investigate a citizen complaint. And it is true that some strange things are going on. Matters come to a head when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to work with the wary locals to try to find out who killed the victim.

Alexander McCall Smith introduces his protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe, in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe has recently opened her detective agency, and it’s not long before she begins to get clients. One of them is a schoolteacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. He is desperate to find the boy and wants her to help. Mma Ramotswe is particularly upset about this case, as you can imagine, and starts working on the case immediately. Before long, she learns that the boy’s disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, and that adds a lot of complication. On the one hand, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t believe in traditional witchcraft, and it’s not politically expedient in modern Botswana to express those beliefs. On the other hand, plenty of people do believe in witchcraft. There’s an underlying respect for, if not fear of, witch doctors and others who deal in the occult. So, it’s not easy to find out the truth.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She is a Wiccan who lives and has her shop, The Sibyl’s Cave, in a Melbourne building called Insula. Meroe is skilled in herbalism and other sorts of healing, and she follows many of the Wiccan traditions. She is friends with Greenwood’s sleuth, Corinna Chapman, who lives and works in the same building. Chapman doesn’t always understand Meroe’s beliefs and skills, but she’s not afraid of her, either. And it’s interesting to see how Meroe is portrayed in this series.

People often seem to fear the unfamiliar. There are myriad examples from real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. That fear can lead to suspicion and worse, sometimes with tragic consequences. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Hornsby’s Sneaking Up on Boo Radley.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Miller, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Robin Cook, Tony Hillerman

Can’t be Controlled, it is Mad*

As this is posted, it’s 201 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. One of the things that makes this story suspenseful is Victor Frankenstein’s frightening discovery that he cannot control what he thought he could control. In fact, that’s given rise to the idiom of ‘creating a monster.’

We also see this sort of suspense in crime novels. And that makes sense. How often have we thought we had something under control, only to find the exact opposite was true.?

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, we are introduced to the enigmatic (and somewhat eerie) Mr. Shaitana. He invites Hercule Poirot to a dinner party to which he also invites seven other people. Four of the guests are sleuths of some form or another (Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver). Four are people who Shaitana suspects have gotten away with murder. During the dinner, Shaitana drops hints about the crimes involved, which turns out to be a very dangerous thing to do. Afterwards, while everyone is playing bridge, Shaitana is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the four people Shaitana believes are murderers. The four sleuths work, each in a different way, to find out who the killer is. In the process, they learn the truth about the original murders. Shaitana thought he could control the situation, but it turns out that it controlled him.

Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said begins as the thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator is waiting for her friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. While she waits, she feels a little restless, and strikes up a friendship with a local man named Peter Biggs. He is middle-aged, unhappily married, and lonely. The narrator feels that first rush of adolescent hormones, but she’s unwilling to do anything about it until Harriet returns. When she does, Harriet says that Biggs must be treated more objectively, and should be observed, and the experiences recorded. So, the two girls start spying on the Biggs household. Then, they see something they weren’t meant to see, and this experiment, if you will, that the girls thought they could control goes very, very wrong. It all ends in tragedy.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Gates and Mason Hunt.  The two grew up in an abusive home, but they turned out very different. Gates squandered all of his considerable natural athletic ability, and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments, and on money he gets from his and Mason’s mother. Mason, on the other hand, has taken advantage of all of the opportunities he’s gotten, and has gone to law school. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument simmers down, but flares up again later that night, when the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. It all ends tragically, when Gates shoots Thompson. Mason knows that Gates can be wild, but he thinks he can control the situation. What’s more, he has a sense of filial loyalty. So, he helps Gates cover up the crime, and life goes on for the brothers. Years later, Gates has turned to drug dealing, and is arrested and convicted for cocaine trafficking. Meanwhile, Mason has become a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates asks his brother to get him out of prison, but Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that, if Mason doesn’t help, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and ends up facing a murder indictment. Now, Mason will have to clear his name.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb decides he needs to help his family. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his Nan, Gloria, in a small, working-class house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. But this isn’t a happy family. Nothing has been right since Steven’s Uncle Billy (his mother’s brother), went missing nineteen years earlier. A man named Arnold Avery, who’s in prison on murder charges in another child murder case, has always been suspected of killing Billy. But no body was discovered, and the family has never gotten any real answers. Steven believes that if he contacts Avery and gets him to say where the body is, this will help the family to heal. So, he writes to Avery in prison.  Steven thinks he can control what happens, but Arnold Avery is a very dangerous man…

There are also medical thrillers, such as Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, that have a similar plot point. In Acceptable Risk, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is working on research into anti-depressants. He’s hired by a pharmacaeutical company to create a new psychotropic therapy and is soon busy with the testing and experiments that go with developing a new drug. Then, he learns that ergot is growing under the basement of a home belonging to the woman he’s dating. Ergot has certain psychotropic properties, so Armstrong decides to use it in his research. The results of initial research are very exciting, and the research team sees this as a major breakthrough. But then, some disturbing things begin to happen. And it’s soon clear that the team doesn’t have the sort of control that they think they do over the research…

One of the lessons that we learn from Frankenstein is that we can’t always control what we think we can. And that’s a very scary lesson to learn. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice‘s Eva and Magaldi/Eva, Beware of the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Beryl Bainbridge, Martin Clark, Mary Shelley, Robin Cook

We got that: [Title of Show]*

Right now, I’m working on a standalone novel (well, it’s a standalone for now, anyway). And one of the decisions I have to make about it is what the title will be. I had a working title for the book, but it wasn’t effective at all. Trust me. It had nothing to do with the plot, and wasn’t a good clue to the sort of story it is.

So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. That’s a normal part of writing a novel. But, as I think about a title that will work (I haven’t chosen one yet), I have to come up with one that’s going to be distinctive. And that’s not as easy to do as you might think. There are millions of books in print, and more become available each year. So, there are plenty of examples of two very different books with the same title.

For instance, both Michael Robotham and L.R. Wright have written novels called The Suspect. They’re both well-regarded, but they’re very different sorts of stories. The Robotham novel introduces psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. It’s the story of the murder of one of his former clients, and links that murder to several others that occur. All of them link back to the past, and O’Loughlin gets caught up in the web, as someone is working to frame him. The Wright novel is the story of the murder of one man, Carlyle Burke.  We know from the beginning that he was killed by George Wilcox. The main focus of this novel is the slow reveal of the motive. Along with that, readers follow along as RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg puts together the pieces of the puzzle, and finds out who killed Burke and why.

In the Blood is the title of Steve Robinson’s first novel featuring genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In it, Tayte is commissioned to trace the ancestry of a client’s wife as a birthday gift. The trail leads to the Cornish coast, and draws Tayte into a deadly mystery. As you might guess, it links the past with the current residents of the area. In the Blood is also the title of a Lisa Unger novel. Lana Granger is finishing up her university degree in psychology when she is persuaded to take a job as nanny to eleven-year-old Luke Kahn. Right from the beginning, she’s made aware that Luke’s had trouble in school. He’s unusually intelligent, but he has several social and emotional problems. And she has a great deal of difficulty working with him. Lana soon has a much more serious problem, though. Her roommate disappears, and it soon seems clear that Lana knows more than she is saying about it. How is she involved, and what does it have to do with her work with Luke Kahn?

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors features Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. He’s been taking some time off from his job, but is lured back to it when the bodies of Alec Dennet and Lorraine Starke are discovered at a Canberra writer’s retreat. Dennet was a member of the 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government who was writing his memoirs; Starke was his editor. So, it’s quite likely that something in the memoirs led to the murders. And that’s not out of the question, since they could have been seriously problematic for several highly-placed people. Chen and his team work through this case, and find that little is as it seems. Elly Griffiths’ Smoke and Mirrors is a completely different sort of novel. The second in her historical (1950s) Stephens and Mephisto series, this one uses children’s fairy tales as a backdrop to the disappearance and murders of two local children, Annie Francis and Mark Webster, in a grim parody of the Hansel and Gretel story. It seems they’d been working with a group of young people who were doing their own theatre productions of some of the fairy tales, with their own interpretations. Magician Max Mephisto works with Detective Inspector (DI) Edgar Stephens to find out what’s really behind these deaths.

Both Carolyn Hart and Paul Thomas have written novels called Death on Demand. Hart’s novel is the first in her Death on Demand series, and introduces her protagonist, bookshop owner Annie Laurance. Both the title and the name of the series refer to the bookshop, which features crime and mystery fiction. In the story, a group of local authors come under suspicion when one of their number, Elliot Morgan, is killed. It seems he wrote a tell-all book that included some unpleasant truths (and allegations) about the other members. Even Annie is mentioned, and that’s part of the reason she becomes a suspect in the murder. Thomas’ novel features Sergeant Tito Ihaka of the Auckland Police. He’s been banished for a time because of a conflict with a powerful man he’d accused of murder. But he returns when that same man, Christopher Lilywhite, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and decides to tell Ihaka the truth. It turns out that Lilywhite did arrange for his wife’s murder, and he’s learned that the killer is likely still out there, committing crimes. Ihaka puts the pieces together, and connects several murders together. These stories are quite different (they’re even in different sub-genres). But they have the same title.

So do both Deon Meyer’s and Robin Cook’s Fever. Meyer’s novel features Nico Storm and his father, Willem, who are among the few to survive a catastrophic virus. Willem works to form a small community of survivors; and, little by little, the community grows. And so do the challenges that the group faces. Whenever there’s a group of disparate people, especially those thrown together by circumstances, anything can happen. And it does. It all leads to murder, and, in Nico’s voice, we hear what happened. Cook’s novel features Dr. Charles Martel, who’s working on a very promising new cancer study. But his employer wants him to devote his energies to their product, Canceran. He agrees (he needs to keep his job), but continues to work on his own research when he can. Then, his daughter, Michelle, is diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and it’s soon traced to toxic waste from a powerful company. Now, Martel works even harder to see if he can find a way to help Michelle. At the same time, he goes up against the company that’s been dumping toxins, and he finds that that can be a very dangerous undertaking.

See what I mean? Sometimes, some very different books have exactly the same title. It’s a good reminder to look carefully before you ‘click here.’ Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to trying to choose a title, myself.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Bowen’s Filling Out the Form.

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Filed under Carolyn Hart, Deon Meyer, Elly Griffiths, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Lisa Unger, Michael Robotham, Paul Thomas, Robin Cook, Steve Robinson

Please Come to Boston*

If you’ve ever visited Boston, then you know that it’s a beautiful city, rich in history and culture. Greater Boston is home to some of the world’s finest educational institutions, museums, restaurants, and medical facilities. It’s little wonder, then, that the city is a popular tourist destination.

But Boston is by no means a perfect place. There’s plenty of crime there – at least if you read crime fiction. Whether it’s in an exclusive Boston hospital, or the seamy side of Dorchester, anything can happen…

As Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson) begins, Arthur Lee, an obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, has been arrested for performing an abortion. It’s 1968, and that procedure is illegal in the United States, so this is a serious matter. Lee claims that he did not perform the abortion, and, in fact, counseled the patient against it. But the patient is Karen Randall, daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most influential doctors at the hospital. What’s worse, Karen did undergo an abortion, and died because the procedure was botched. So, as you can imagine, Randall is determined that the police will pursue the case against Lee. Lee asks his friend, pathologist John Berry, to help him clear his name, and Berry agrees. He begins to look into what happened, and finds that some things are not consistent with a botched abortion and a doctor who lied about it. But it’s not long before Berry also learns that some very powerful people who want the case left alone. And the more he finds out about Karen Randall, the more he sees that her life was a lot more complicated than anyone knew.

Several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers/mysteries take place in the Boston area, too. For instance, in Acceptable Risk, noted neuroscientist Edward Armstrong accepts an offer to work for a breakout biotechnology company called Genetrix. He’ll be working on a new psychotropic drug designed to combat depression. He and his research team have already been working in the area, and have some promising ideas, so it’s exciting that he’ll have a company to back his efforts. At the same time, Armstrong meets a Boston-area nurse, Kimberly Stewart. She’s renovating a home that’s been in her family for a few hundred years, and Armstrong takes an interest in the project (and in her). He’s even more interested when he learns that ergot has been found below the house’s basement. He persuades Genetrix to set up a lab for him and his team on the property, and they get to work. The end result is terrifying, and it shows just how much pressure there is on researchers to come up with ‘the big cure.’

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, we meet Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. One day, he gets a call from his friend, pawn-shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. He’s gotten a painting into his shop that he thinks might be valuable, and he wants Revere to authenticate it. Revere agrees and goes to the shop. To his shock, the painting seems to be a genuine Velázquez. Revere wants to do some research on the painting to help his friend establish its provenance and worth. Revere doesn’t want such a valuable piece of art to be left in the pawn shop, but Pawlovsky refuses to let it go. So, a reluctant Revere leaves it there, and goes to find out more information. When he returns two hours later, Pawlovsky is dead. It’s obvious that he was murdered for the painting, although it is still in the shop’s safe. Revere feels guilty for leaving his friend, and that’s part of what motivates him. He decides that if he can trace the painting from the time it was ‘taken by the Nazis for safekeeping’ until it ended up in the shop, he can find Pawlovsky’s murderer. The trip takes him to several different European places, but it all starts in Boston.

Much of Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone takes place in the working-class Dorchester section of Boston. In it, PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a new case. Four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing, and a massive hunt hasn’t turned up any clues. Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and Aunt Beatrice McCready want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate.  The PIs not sure what they can do that several police departments and a public alert haven’t done, but they decide to take the case. They  start with Amanda’s mother, Helene, but they don’t’ get much help there. She’s not exactly an attentive mother; in fact, she left the child alone on the night she was taken. As Kenzie and Gennaro piece together the truth about what happened to Amanda, the search takes them through several parts of Dorchester, and we see what life is like in this part of Boston.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, which takes place in 1758. When Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are found murdered, it looks on the surface as though they were killed by hostile Indians (which wouldn’t be surprising, given this is during the Seven Years/French and Indian War). But the Indians in the area (North Carolina) where the bodies where found are not enemies. What’s more, an unusual brooch with Masonic symbols on it was found at the scene. Local constable James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard decides to look into the matter more deeply. He thinks that, if he can trace the brooch to its origin, he can find out more about the murder.  So, he follows the brooch’s trail to Boston (and later, to Québec). The Boston that Woodyard finds is much more urban and sophisticated than his plantation is, and there’s resentment there against what is seen as British highhandedness. The American Revolution itself is twenty years off, but there’s already deep unhappiness at the status quo, and it’s quite the topic in Boston. It’s an interesting look at the Boston of that era.

Whatever era one’s in, Boston is an interesting city. It’s a world-class destination for education, medicine, and more. But that doesn’t mean it’s crime free…

 

Thanks to Bostonusa.com for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dave Loggins.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Dennis Lehane, Donald Smith, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Robin Cook

She Blinded Me With Science*

As this is posted, it would have been Marie Curie’s 151st birthday. Her contributions to our understanding of the world are too numerous to mention (and I’m not sophisticated enough in science to do them justice, anyway). And, of course, she made those contributions at a time when it was very unusual for a woman to be accepted as part of the scientific community.

Scientific breakthroughs are, of course, double-edged swords, as the saying goes. They are the basis for much of our progress. At the same time, they have consequences. We’ve certainly seen that in real life, including the work that the Curies did. And we see it in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet atomic scientist Alec Legge. He and his wife, Peggy, are staying in a cottage on the property of Nasse House, which belongs to Sir George Stubbs. When Sir George and his wife, Hattie, host a charity fête, the whole household, including the Legges, get involved in preparing for it. So does their guest, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, who’s preparing a Murder Hunt competition for the event. She’s not typically a fanciful person, but she gets the feeling that something is very wrong with this fête, and that more is going on than it seems. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to visit and investigate. He (and Alec Legge) are both on hand on the day of the fête, when there is a murder. And it turns out that Legge’s profession has gotten him into a difficult situation that figures into this plot.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow features Smilla Jaspersen, a Greenlander who now lives in Copenhagen. She is upset when ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in her building, dies from what seems to be a terrible accident – a fall from the roof of the building. She soon begins to suspect that this fall was not accidental and decides to ask questions. The trail leads back to Greenland, and to some scientific discoveries there that have serious consequences.

Robin Cook has written more than once about scientific breakthroughs and the risks and benefits they offer. In Seizure, for instance, we are introduced to Dr. Daniel Lowell. He’s been conducting some promising stem cell research and is hoping to make his procedure a viable option. But his interest in such research is not universal. There are several people, including powerful US Senator Ashley Butler, who are opposed to stem cell research. In fact, Butler supports a ban on studies such as the ones that Lowell has been conducting. So, it’s a real shock when Butler actually contacts Lowell with a proposal. Butler has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. If word of this gets out, he will have no chance to pursue his ambition of becoming president. He offers to withdraw his objections to stem cell research (thus giving Lowell’s work a vital boost) if Lowell conducts his procedure on Butler. Lowell agrees, and plans are made. But neither man knows that this breakthrough will come at a terrible price.

Scientific breakthroughs have meant that we can now test water to determine whether it’s safe and what particular toxins are or aren’t in it. And that means that companies and other entities are now accountable for what they put in local water. And municipalities are now accountable for the way they clean (or don’t) clean it. Carl Hiaasen takes a look at how water testing can be (mis)used in Skinny Dip, which features Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone. On paper, anyway, he is a marine biologist. His real interest, though, is himself. So, he’s all too open to an ‘arrangement’ with agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. It seems that Hammernut’s company has been accused of polluting the local water. He needs to prove that his company isn’t responsible or face huge fines or even worse. Perrone has developed a technique for making water samples appear clean and toxin-free, even if they aren’t. So, Hammernut hires Perrone to ‘prove’ that his company is not a polluter. When Perrone’s wife finds out what he’s doing, he decides that the only way to deal with that situation is to get rid of her. He tries to do just that by throwing her overboard during a cruise. But Joey survives, and that’s just the beginning of Chaz Perrone’s problems…

And then there’s Christine Poulson’s Katie Flanagan. She is a laboratory researcher whom we meet in Deep Water. In that novel, the laboratory she works for is on the point of a breakthrough control for obesity. But a suspicious death, and other troubling events raise some real questions. And, when Katie looks into them, she finds herself and her career in real danger. In Cold, Cold Heart, she travels to Antarctica, grasping at an opportunity to do research there in an attempt to salvage her career. There, she gets involved in a mystery that ties a murder on that outpost with some hidden secrets that a patent lawyer, David Marchmont, discovers. In both of these novels, there are high-stakes scientific breakthroughs that could make a major difference in people’s lives. But they’re also both risky and in high demand. And that can spell trouble…

That’s the thing about scientific breakthroughs. They move our lives forward, and they have saved millions of lives. But that doesn’t mean they have no consequences…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thomas Dolby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Christine Poulson, Peter Høeg, Robin Cook