Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Plot's The Thing

If you're looking for elements to make up a good thriller, you usually can't go wrong with the three Ms: medicine, military, and murder. Thomas Jackson manages to combine the three in his first fictional effort Death of a Cure: A Thomas Briggs Novel.

"Death of a Cure" introduces us to Dr. Thomas Briggs, a Marine surgeon who's a member of an elite military unit that conducts special operations. We first meet Dr. Briggs as he prepares for a rather unusual insertion. The story is told through the eyes of Briggs, who, after completion of the novel-opening mission, learns of the death of his brother, a renowned medical researcher in New York City. Briggs travels to New York to find that police believe his brother committed suicide. He isn't satisfied with that answer and endeavors to learn what really happened to his brother.

After quickly realizing that he's in over his head, he gladly accepts the assistance of his "friend" and FBI agent Marilena Riggatti. As the two of them work to discover the truth, their relationship develops into much more than friendship. Clich├ęd yes, but pretty well done. There's enough romance and sex to keep you interested without being gratuitous.

Early in the book, you realize that Jackson has a number of hobby horses which he intends to ride hard in his writing. Airport security is one and corporate bureaucracy is another. But the chief focus of the author's ire are non-profit organizations whose mission is to cure diseases. Jackson is obviously highly skeptical of their claims to altruism and a good part of the book consists of Dr. Briggs uncovering the unseemly underbelly of the organization on whose behalf his dead brother toiled.

The strength of "Death of a Cure" lies in the characters. Thomas Briggs is a likeable yet flawed hero. He's far from perfect, especially when it comes to exercising patient or navigating social situations. Even though most of us can't relate to what he does for a living or his background, we can appreciate his limitations and his struggles to overcome them.

The weakness of the book is the plot. At a broad level, it's probably something that could work. The problem is in the way it unfolds. There's not enough mystery or enough thrills to really engage the reader. There aren't any red herrings or dead ends to get stuck on, because it's never really clear who the main suspects are, what their motivations might be, or how it all could tie together. A good mystery encourages you to speculate and keeps you guessing. This does neither. We see the ending coming far too soon and the actions of Dr. Briggs and FBI agent Riggatti leading up to it are implausible.

This being Jackson's first effort at the mystery/thriller genre and because he has managed to craft some appealing characters, I'm willing to give him another chance with the next Thomas Briggs novel. A characters as good as Dr. Briggs deserves a much better plot.

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