With his first two novels --- SHOOFLY PIE and CHOP SHOP in the Bug Man series --- Tim Downs established himself as a formidable competitor in the burgeoning field of CBA fiction. Both books made it fairly easy to predict that Downs would have a significant impact on the Christian publishing industry. Who could have predicted, though, that this early in his career as an author Downs would break the CBA suspense genre wide open? But that's just what he has done with PLAGUEMAKER.
Simply put, Downs's third novel, and his first outside the Bug Man series, is strong enough not only to overtake CBA's bestsellers but also to take on the big boys in the ABA. It's said that often the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but I'm not so sure that applies here; the whole is great, but there are no slackers among the parts. Downs hits the bull's-eye with each element: a terrific story, vivid imagery, thoroughly researched details, truly suspenseful action, fascinating characters, and that ever-elusive, all-too-rare commodity: believable dialogue. To top it off, he has proven himself to be quite the wordsmith.
Did I mention the terrific story? A routine murder in New York City turns into a federal case with the discovery of thousands of exterminated fleas at the crime scene. That's right...fleas. And those fleas provide evidence of a bioterrorism plot that is about as chilling as any scenario you could imagine. They also provide an opportunity for Nick "Bug Man" Polchak to make a cameo appearance, which warmed my heart to no end. I've been missing Nick way too much.
As FBI agent Nathan Donovan begins his probe, an elderly Chinese man inserts himself into the investigation, drawn from England to the U.S. by a brief newspaper article on the murder that mentioned the fleas. Li Ming is convinced he knows the identity of the biological weapons expert behind the plot, and he tries to convince Donovan of the same. Trouble is, he has not laid eyes on Sato Matsushita in sixty years. Donovan is understandably skeptical. To complicate things, Matsushita seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth all those years ago. Googling him would be pointless.
Further complicating the investigation is the presence of Nathan's ex-wife Macy, a terrorism expert who is fluent in so many languages that she becomes an indispensable part of the team. Downs deftly handles the tension between them, mercifully sidestepping the "stubborn, strong-willed woman" syndrome that has plagued CBA fiction in recent years. The problems between the two characters are real enough, and both emerge as hurting people in need of a whole lot of healing.
But back to that great story. As parts of the intricate terrorism plot are unveiled to Donovan and members of the terrorism task force, critical elements come to light to the reader that are hidden from the investigators --- and from the terrorist himself. What results is a nightmare scenario that is enough to terrify anyone, mainly because it is so utterly possible. Beyond that, Downs provides glimpses into the minds of two distinctly different brands of terrorist: one represented by the intelligent, shrewd, and calculating Matsushita, who has spent sixty years perfecting his plan to avenge the death of his sister at Hiroshima, and the other represented by Matsushita's co-conspirator, a Middle Eastern terrorist who devises a crude-by-comparison but potentially effective plan to destroy New York Harbor --- including the Statue of Liberty --- and much of Lower Manhattan.
If you're wondering what makes this a Christian novel, that easily can be summed up in one word: forgiveness. Li, the only Christian among the main characters, is the embodiment of forgiveness --- both the forgiveness God extends to people and the forgiveness people extend to each other. Li's is the voice of wisdom and reason in a foolish and unreasonable world.
If the book has a flaw, it's in the predictable ending of the first chapter, which is otherwise excellent. (I'd love to see the first chapter played out to its logical but unpredictable ending and developed into another, distinctly different novel.) But in light of the rest of the book, that flaw is little more than an isolated hiccup. It's like public speaking --- trip over a word early on, and then you can relax and settle into the rest of the speech without a hitch. Actually, I mention this hiccup only to encourage you to keep reading even if early on you accurately predict the way chapter one ends. I can pretty much guarantee that you will not regret it.
--- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (email@example.com)
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