Today’s generic thriller is best known for its nonstop action, a characteristic of the genre that is often emphasized by the book’s extremely short chapters and cardboard characters. Thrillers are not usually literary in nature but, because readers of the genre do not expect literary masterpieces, they do not have to be. When a thriller writer does get a little more ambitious by offering fully-fleshed characters, a subplot or two, and a well researched main plot, thriller readers have hit the jackpot. But this is an easy line for an author to cross – as happens when an overabundance of exotically-named minor characters makes the plot almost impossible to follow.
James Lilliefor’s Viral, an intriguing tale of scientists who succumb to the idea of what is possible, while ignoring the ultimate consequences of their research, is one of those “literary thrillers” I describe. The book’s main characters, brothers Charles and Jon Mallory, are made believable by the manner in which Lilliefor explores their boyhood relationship to help explain how they have become the men they are. Lilliefor takes it a step farther by revealing the pair’s lifetimes of personal successes and failures to illustrate just how different from one another the brothers are.
Jon has always admired his older brother, the family’s golden boy, even though he could never match Charles’s accomplishments and believes that he was a disappointment to their father. Charles is a former CIA agent who is putting his counterterrorism expertise to good and profitable use as a private contractor with a worldwide reputation for effectiveness. Jon has taken on the rather more mundane role of investigative reporter for a Washington D.C. newspaper. These days the two seldom even speak to each other, but after their father dies unexpectedly, Charles leads Jon along a mysterious trail around the world that will save millions of lives if the brothers can solve the puzzle in time.
Viral did, however, leave me a bit frustrated and mystified at times. Lilliefor populates his book with so many side character villains that I could not keep up with their various relationships to the conspiracy despite trying to track them by handwritten notes to myself. There is just not enough time for Lilliefor to develop all his characters to the point that they become unique and memorable to the reader. Too, after having spent so much time with Lilliefor’s “ticking bomb” kind of a plot, I found myself somewhat disappointed in the book’s climax even though all the loose ends are tied up rather neatly.
That said, Viral is still one of the better thrillers I have read in recent months. It combines the best elements of medical thrillers with those of rogue-government-agent-conspiracy thrillers to tell a plausible tale that encompasses villains worthy of a confrontation with James Bond himself. Just be forewarned that it is best to track very carefully the comings and goings of every character right from the beginning in order to avoid the kind of confusion I experienced.
Rated at: 3.5