Double Helix

by Nancy Werlin

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 2004
Category: young adult (YA) science thriller / mystery

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (from author’s website):

Eighteen year old Eli Samuels has just graduated from high school and lucked into a job at Wyatt Transgenics—offered to him by Dr. Quincy Wyatt, the legendary molecular biologist. The salary is substantial, the work is interesting, and Dr. Wyatt seems to be paying special attention to Eli. It’s almost too good to be true. Is there a catch?

Eli’s girlfriend doesn’t think so, but his father is vehemently against his taking the job and won’t explain why. Eli knows that there’s some connection between Dr. Wyatt and his parents—something too painful for his father to discuss. Something to do with his debilitated mother. As Eli works at the lab, and spends time with Dr. Wyatt, he begins to uncover some disconcerting information—about himself.
Suspenseful and eloquent, with a hair-raising conclusion, Double Helix explores identity, intimacy, and the complicated ethics of genetic engineering.


Double Helix is a young adult novel (target audience: 13-18 years old). At its core, this book is a science mystery with thriller elements. It’s the first YA book I’ve reviewed at; the title caught my eye when I was browsing the library stacks with my daughter. It was a fortuitous discovery. Molecular biology, or more specifically, advanced reproductive technologies and genetic engineering, are foundational to the plot but are not intrusive in the story. Though the author is not a scientist, she consulted well with experts to create a factually sound scenario. This book could be used as a starting point for discussions about bioethics.

Like much fiction for adolescents, most of the pages in Double Helix are about relationships, character, and various challenges that transform the main character into an adult. Eli Samuels is a tortured, sympathetic, well-developed protagonist with some unusual traits (he’s very tall and very smart) and some serious problems (he lacks ambition, his mother is institutionalized, and his relationship with his father is broken). He makes poor choices out of fear and selfishness.

From the first pages of this novel, the reader is propelled forward by questions about Eli’s connection to Dr. Wyatt (questions Eli himself cannot answer), about Eli’s strained relationship with his father, and about what is wrong with Eli’s mother. Some of these questions linger until the climax at the very end of the story, keeping the pages turning.

Bottom line: Double Helix is an excellent book for its target audience with some crossover appeal to adults. Author Nancy Werlin is an acclaimed writer whose novel The Killer’s Cousin won an Edgar Award. (This is a prestigious award given to the best mystery of the year in various categories.)

Parent alert: premarital sex (NOT graphic, but it’s presented as normal/healthy activity)

Key words: in vitro fertilization, transgenics, Cambridge Massachusetts, Huntington’s disease, embryo selection, DNA, trinucleotide repeat, bioethics

Another YA LabLit novel: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro, features a female protagonist. Set in in New York in 1906, this novel tells the true story of a breakthrough in epidemiology, and the ethical dilemma of “Typhoid Mary.”

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