by Ken Follett
(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)
Year published: 2004
Category: thriller; science thriller
Tech rating (out of 5):
Something is missing from the high-security biosafety level 4 storage unit at a Scottish medical laboratory—and so is a lab technician. On Christmas Eve, the lab’s security director Toni Gallo learns that a man found bleeding from his eyeballs in the company of a dead rabbit is only the beginning of her problems. In the midst of a blizzard, Toni is drawn to a remote country house where her boss and his family are gathered. Family secrets, rivalries, jealousies, and sexual tensions are pushed to the background when armed bandits—and a traitor—threaten to make this their last Christmas alive.
In Whiteout, British thriller writer Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle) centers his story on a private research institute in rural Scotland where BSL-4 viruses—in particular, a nasty Ebola variant he calls Madoba-2—are kept for study of a new antiviral drug.
In structure, pacing, and a few themes, Whiteout somewhat resembles Follett’s masterpiece WWII spy thriller Eye of the Needle (though it isn’t as good a book, no surprise given that Needle is one of the most perfectly constructed thrillers of all time). But the guy knows how to write thrillers. Follett’s stories are like avalanches started by pebbles. First, you meet a cast of characters so well-developed they make most thriller inhabitants look like paper dolls. These characters have complicated relationships with each other, and as their lives play out on the page, the reader starts to care about them. The pebbles slowly tumble downhill—hints of bad things to come. More pebbles tumble, and become snowballs—bad things happening. Page after page, the tension mounts, bad things get worse, and eventually you can’t put the book down.
The down side of this type of pacing is a relatively slow start. By the standards of most contemporary thrillers, Whiteout takes a while to get going. The first few chapters have some solid action, but after that the next one-third or so of the novel is essentially setting up the story. It isn’t until the halfway point that a key plot twist launches the suspense into overdrive. But in exchange for your patience as a reader, you are rewarded with better characters and deeper sense of involvement in the story’s outcome.
While this book is nominally about bioterrorism and a killer virus, scientific/medical elements actually play a fairly minor role in the plot (hence the three biohazard rating). Whiteout is more of a heist thriller with high stakes than a dyed-in-the-wool science thriller, and the virus stuff could be replaced by another dangerous, valuable item without changing the story much. The book’s main protagonist is a former cop, now security chief for the research institute, not a scientist or physician, though another character is the institute’s founder and chief scientist Stanley Oxenford. (I LOVED both of these characters and wish I could hang out with them in real life.)
Whiteout‘s main weakness is a fairly predictable denouement, but it’s well-played. I nearly gave the novel 3 stars instead of 4 but decided it really is above average for the science thriller genre, even if Follett’s fans consider it not to be his best work.
Ken Follett was given the ThrillerMaster award in 2010 by International Thriller Writers in recognition of lifetime achievement writing great novels.
PARENT ALERT: moderately graphic violence and sex, including premarital teen sexual encounter
If you like the author’s style in this book, you MUST read: Eye of the Needle, also by Ken Follett