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Thick than blood

A murder mystery wrapped in the human genome



From the first sentence to the last, some books read as though they were written with a movie deal in mind. The themes are torn from the headlines, the scenes written with a cup of intrigue, several hearty dashes of sex, a few shakes of evil, and a bowl full of adrenaline-pumping action that culminates with the good guys emerging victorious.

Neil McMahon’s thriller, Blood Double, is one of these books. But don’t get me wrong, this does not mean it is not a satisfying, kick-in-the-pants read perfect for an afternoon at the beach. If his characters were not quirky and interesting, if the stakes were not based on a complex and fascinating contemporary issue, then the book would no doubt be abandoned on a sandy towel long before the barbecue is raging. This is not the case.

What makes Blood Double a compelling read—and what would make it a box office hit in the movie theatres—is due in large part to Carroll Monks, the attending physician in the emergency room where the action starts off. The star of McMahon’s debut novel, Twice Dying, ER doctor and medical investigator Monks is not too perfect. Like the rest of us, he is flawed. He has a temper he’s been working to control for the last few decades, he tends to drink too much, and because he was once attacked by a knife-wielding psychopath he often suffers from nightmares he can’t chase away. Though at times—even with his short list of flaws—he seems too good to be true, he does come across as a man who means well. He wants a relationship with his daughter who, now in her first year of medical school, he only knows from the perspective of their weekend visits. He wants to find love again, and has the charm and patience to do so…and maybe get it right this time. And above all else, he wants to bring the truth to light. He’s not the kind of guy who can turn a blind eye to any sort of trouble, even if it extends well beyond the ER.

Like any good thriller, the action of Blood Double starts immediately. A tiny Asian woman in spike heels and thick makeup rushes into the ER. Gesturing wildly, she points to a white man on the ground just outside the hospital entrance who is being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by an Asian man. Nothing too unusual in a day in the life of the ER. But then the Asian woman and man vanish, just like that. And when the man is revived, he is nervous and refuses to reveal his identity. Unlike most of the junkies who hit the ER, the mystery patient is dressed in expensive clothes and jewelry. He demands to be discharged and, against Monks’ medical advice, is soon whisked away in a limo.

Stephanie, Monks’ daughter, who happened to be “observing” at the ER that day, insists that the man was Lex Rittenour, the computer wunderkind of a company on the eve of an IPO and the launch of a software program that will change the face of science forever. In a nutshell, Lex Rittenour has created a computer program that works off the recently mapped human genome, offering a sweeping diagnostic test for potential diseases and birth defects. Advocates and critics know that once such a program is out there for public consumption, there is no going back. It would be a genetics breakthrough that involved huge sums of money and power but which also epitomized the influence on human life. Along with its scientific leaps and bounds would come the threat of discrimination, abuse of power, and the creation of a master race.

Within an hour of the limo’s departure, a mysterious fire breaks out at the other end of the hospital in a conference room, close to where the lab is located. Stephanie, again in the right place at the right time, happens to see two “firemen” go into the lab. Soon, the lab explodes and the blood samples from the ER are missing, one of which belonged to the well-dressed John Doe. No time is wasted: Scene by scene, we witness murders—attempted and completed. We learn about illegal aliens sold into slavery and prostitution. We discover unspeakable acts regarding babies being aborted in the name of science. And we see the widespread abuse of street and pharmaceutical drugs and lives disposed of like dirty IV needles.

McMahon weaves his story well. We have a litany of bad guys, body guards, and hit men. We have the sympathetic and beautiful company doctor who Monks immediately falls for, but can he trust her? We have the rich wunderkind, trying to escape from or make amends with the fact that he “created a monster.” And we have Monks himself, the reluctant investigator who dodges bullets, lies, and doubts to bring the truth to light.

Like any good thriller, we gasp at the frequency of greed wrapping its insidious fingers around many a neck then, moments later, cheer when the weak suddenly become strong.

By the end, all the strands are untangled. The good guys are safe and vindicated while the bad are off to get what they deserve. The guy gets the girl, the girl gets the guy. We finish the book—or leave the theatre—with a giddy sense that all’s well that ends well, even if in the backs of our minds we know that somewhere along the way the story was based on fact.

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