I’m not against a bit of opportunistic book marketing. Lockdown feels like ‘Instant Karma’ but for books. I bet it wasn’t always called that, but right now it feels as if it has been ripped from the headlines. Published at the beginning of this month, this novel dates from 2005, when, according to its author, no publisher would touch it because it was ‘unrealistic’.
As a long-time reader of science fiction, I find this excuse hard to believe. It’s not a bad thriller, as it happens, though you might argue that its protagonist is unsympathetic. It’s a genre mashup, anyway, a little bit of science fiction in the form of a flu pandemic, and a little bit of thriller; a science fiction thriller, if you will. In these slow lockdown days, the unrealistic part, for me, is the sheer pace at which it all barrels along. A classic police procedural it is not, and it smashes through plot like a desperate copper on his last case on the track of a psychotic killer.
London is the setting and the epicentre of an out-of-control bird-flu pandemic. There’s a lockdown; NHS is overwhelmed; bodies are being disposed of in mass cremations; there are army checkpoints, a curfew, and the police are short-handed. An emergency hospital is being constructed (can they do it in a week, like they did in China?), but work is halted when a bag of human bones is found.
Enter our protagonist, D.I. Jack MacNeil, who is about to work a long and action-packed final shift against a backdrop of societal breakdown. His adversary is an efficient killer who is ruthlessly cleaning up the evidence before it can be tagged and bagged.
For me, this pandemic – a little like the one in Emily St John Mandell’s Station Eleven – is a bit too efficient at killing its victims to be as widespread as it is. Explicit mention is made of the way asymptomatic children can spread the disease around willy-nilly, but then there’s a child in the novel who gets it and deteriorates as rapidly as everyone else. Still, we’re learning, aren’t we, that a single virus can affect a wide range of people in a wide range of different ways.
A lot of people might steer clear of a book like this right now. I was fine with it, because I seem to be able to compartmentalise at the moment. On the other hand, flu pandemic aside, there are gruesome and distressing scenes in this novel that you might find upsetting at the best of times. Having not read much Peter May in the past, that may be par for the course.
Anyway, a rollicking quick read and very zeitgeisty.