(2014) Roger Cook, MacMillan, £18.99, hrdbk, 402pp, ISBN 978-0-230-76938-0
Roger Cook is the author of over 30 medical thrillers, some of which, like Invasion and Foreign Body, made it to TV and film. Coma did both, attracting Michael Douglas and Richard Dreyfuss along the way. So Cook has a long and bestselling track record, and although his genre is undoubtedly thriller rather than SF, there’s enough of the disaster story about his tales to justify our interest, if not a place on the speculative fiction bookshelves.
Cook trained as a medicaldoctor and writes what he knows. Think of him as a medical John Grisham and you will not be too far off his writing style and approach. This is a dumbed-down page-turner (he even spends a paragraph early on explaining what 'beta testing' is, because clearly he does not expect his readers to have a clue). And yet it is strangely enjoyable.
This is a review so it is about the story not the writing (well, mainly), but I so wanted to critique this book. Technically, this is never going to win the Booker prize. But that never stopped Michael Crichton, John Grisham and Dan Brown, and if you have read them, you will know what to expect. Here is a short taster from page 194 – I am sure you can draw your own conclusions. '"Always right on the money," Clayton said. "Sharp as a tack! I knew I could count on you."' And so on…
But like Grisham and the rest, Cook's prose has a relentlessness about it that makes you want to read on. He uses scriptwriting conventions so the story builds from mystery to climax, from crisis to revelation. He may use a lot (a LOT) of exposition to set up his tale, and he may try to bury it under a ton of unnecessary backstory, but what he gives us is quite intriguing, and he drips it out the real story convincingly enough.
In Cell, an insurance company develops a mobile app (presumably the 'cell' in the title) which can effectively replace primary healthcare, and do it more cheaply and effectively, so the insurance company can cut down on payouts. The iDoc is an always-on, self-learning programme which can directly monitor vitals via sensors on a smartphone and deliver medicines via an implant, and it seems to be wildly successful. But just at the point it is introduced to the wider world, terminally ill people involved in the beta testing of the app start to die.
George Wilson is a radiologist at the LA University Medical Centre. He’s also the boyfriend of one of the victims and the close friend of another. When others start to die he starts to suspects that the cluster of deaths are down to iDoc, and he sets out to find out why. And that is when bad things start to happen.
What makes Cell for me is the strong moral dilemma at its core, one that is current and relevant (particularly for Americans). Rolling out Obamacare will cost money, and both Government and insurance providers will want to reduce costs. Do you continue doling out expensive treatments when you know a patient will die anyway, probably quickly and painfully? And if you have a reliable way of identifying those people with a high degree of accuracy, might you be tempted to be pragmatic about the action you would take?
A medical drama with a message, then. In George, we have a point of view character with a dilemma. Once he finds out what’s going on, he, and we, have to determine whether the end justifies the means. We work out what’s going on well before the slightly clueless, naïve George, but that only gives us more time to think about it. Will he make the right choice? And what is the right choice anyway?
So there you have it. I shouldn't like books written like this but I did. Guilty pleasure.
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