by John Case
(very good; top 50% of SciThri)
Year published: 1998
Category: science thriller; medical thriller
Tech rating (out of 5):
A sincere, good-hearted pregnant girl willingly participates in the brutal murder of an elderly couple. A starving village in North Korea is decimated by a plague, and a resident witnesses the village’s final destruction by a military strike. A reporter slogs through Russia in winter to follow a mysterious scientific expedition to unearth the bodies of miners who died almost a hundred years ago. A smart but not very savvy virologist. And a technologically-sophisticated cult that holds a bioweapon intended to purify the earth of humans.
The First Horseman is a stellar science thriller by one of my favorite authors, John Case. The protagonist is a classic investigative journalist, Frank Daly, who won’t let go of the story even when his own life is threatened. Daly is smart and dogged, and the plot is sequentially revealed as he digs up one clue after another despite resistance from everybody in a position of authority. Naturally, he falls for his most important source, Dr. Annie Adair, and together they save the world.
I love the way this book uses real science and real events for the fictional story WITHOUT making it obvious or like sitting through a lecture. The 1918 Spanish flu is a key “character” in the story, and the related science is accurate. Writer John Case does an excellent job of building suspense page after page, and the mild love interest between Daly and Annie works well. Various cult members are deliciously evil or naïve. My only complaints come in the improbable climax, with some behavior that makes you want to slap the protagonists for their stupidity, and a deus ex machina resolution. But at no point did this reader feel let down (maybe a little confused by the North Korea plot thread…)
If you want to learn more about the truth behind the fiction: I highly recommend Flu by New York Times science writer Gina Kolata, which chronicles the real-life expeditions that led to the genome sequencing of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus.