Richard P. Wenzel, MD, MSc, is an internationally-renowned infectious disease expert, now turned thriller writer. His debut novel Labyrinth of Terror is steeped in accurate microbiology, presenting a plausible bioterrorism scenario in which a virulent string of post-op infections breaks out in London’s King’s College Hospital. In order to stem the tide of an international epidemic, a scientist, a physician, and a spy must discover the origin of the outbreak.
Here, Dr. Wenzel discusses the knowledge and life experiences which inspired him to write Labyrinth of Terror.
1. What inspired you to write Labyrinth of Terror?
I’ve always loved writing – and it has been a gift in academic medicine where publishing has been critical to success. But I wanted to reach out to a large audience, and fiction – especially a thriller – offers that opportunity.
Labyrinth of Terror allowed me to combine an interest in three themes – the bio-terror threat in the 21st century, my love of Greek mythology, and my fascination for the city of London, where I lived for one year during a sabbatical. Of course, international politics forms a background for the story.
2. What first sparked your interest in the field of infectious disease research?
I had three experiences that sparked my interest in infectious diseases: at age eight, as a climber of big trees, I fell twenty feet the day school had recessed for the summer and fractured the femur, the large bone in the thigh. I spent an extra 3 weeks in the hospital after a hospital- acquired infection developed at the entrance to the pin holding my bone in place. It was a Staph infection in my leg. That experience opened my eyes to medicine and helping people in general.
In my third year in medical school, my microbiology professor at Jefferson arranged a three month visit to the Philippines where I helped treat 100 new patients a day with cholera – a deadly diarrheal disease. I felt useful during that epidemic and thoroughly enjoyed the international aspect of this field.
In the second year of my internal medicine training at the University of Maryland, my chair of medicine arranged a 3 month visit to Bangladesh during a cholera epidemic there, and now I could take charge of patient care. During that same time I saw patients with leprosy, tetanus and smallpox. I knew that the field of infectious diseases was important to me!
3. Describe some of the experiences you’ve had as a physician that awoke you to the reality of bio-terror and germ warfare.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, I began to read of that country’s many clandestine bio-terror laboratories scattered throughout the nation in different cities. Unknown to the rest of the world, the Soviets had been working for twenty years on deadly strains of anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and other pathogens.
Later on, I met Ken Alibek, the number two scientist in the Soviet Union’s secret bio-terror program. He had defected to the U.S. And very coldly told me that he and his colleagues thought that they were doing something important for science and for their country. I was struck by his apparent lack of global perspective or a consideration of consequences or ethics while he worked in the Soviet Union.
Terror arrived in the U.S. on 9-11, and at that time no one was initially sure that a release of bio-weapons had been a part of the plot. Soon afterwards, true bioterrorism came to the United States when the anthrax-laced letters began to arrive in post offices, the offices of journalists, and members of congress.
Surely a large scale bioterrorist attack is possible.
4. Labyrinth of Terror takes place in some exotic locales. Describe some of your more memorable travels, and how they figure in your writing process.
I mentioned my early experiences in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Since then I have traveled widely in continental Europe, Asia and South America. During a year in London in 1985-86, the Achille Lauro incident occurred when a group of terrorists attacked a pleasure cruise; several airline hijackings occurred, an airline office in London was blown up, and our children’s school was boarded up because of anti- American sentiment – especially after Reagan bombed Gaddafi.
My family and I lived for six weeks in Taiwan, and my wife and I have spent weeks in Australia, New Zealand and Tanzania, and the Middle East.
Travel exposes people to the rich histories and cultures of people who look and live differently from you. Their own views, family stories and myths are fascinating, mysterious and sometimes challenging to the views one had before the visits. As a result a person has to reexamine strongly held concepts, especially when listening to the stories that foreigners tell you about their beliefs, struggles, concerns and views of America?
5. How much research did you do for Labyrinth of Terror, and how much of the book did you write from imagination?
Although I eventually had the key concepts of the book in my mind, I did a great deal of research to be sure that I had the facts down correctly. Especially the history of Palestine after 1948 and various attempts to resolve issues between Israel and Palestine. I also wanted to be sure I had details about Greek mythology and various histories. I looked outside of London for details that were important in the book, and even some details about London itself.
6. What sets Labyrinth of Terror apart from other medical thrillers?
One of the key differences in Labyrinth of Terror is the critical role of both an epidemiologist and a microbiologist in solving the “who done it.” Usually the standard sleuths are detectives. Furthermore, the use of mythology in the book informs the motivation for the bio-terror. And without trying to overstate so, my own experiences and expertise in both infectious diseases and epidemiology makes the book knowledgeable and credible.
7. Greek mythology plays an important role in the plot. What led you to incorporate myth into a primarily scientific narrative?
Myths are a part of every culture, and Greek mythology is rich with interesting stories. Myths provide people with hope, especially if they are poor or weak, or unattractive or victims of fate. Myths orient us to how we view life and the world around us and through which we interpret day to day challenges. I purposely used myth to help explain the motivation behind the bio-terror plot in the story. In the title of the book, the word labyrinth reflects the importance of Greek mythology.
Dr. Wenzel is a professor and former chair of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.