Written by LA Larkin — When Michael Crichton died in 2008, we lost a fantastic storyteller capable of taking popular science and making it the basis of a gripping thriller. LA Larkin has been compared to the American author and Devour is definitely worth reading if you’re a Crichton fan.
The story starts off in Antarctica where a scientific expedition led by Professor Heatherton are drilling through 3km of pack ice to access a subterranean lake. A combination of the pressure of the ice and geothermal warmth beneath means the water’s not frozen down there, and the researchers want to see if ancient microbes inhabit the lake. A Russian team elsewhere on the continent is also drilling, so there’s a race on to bring samples to the surface and test them. A member of the UK expedition is murdered, and sabotage is suspected.
Enter Olivia Wolfe, crack warzone reporter working for a fictitious London broadsheet. She’s just back from Afghanistan where she witnessed the murder of a young woman who’d been forced to marry an IS leader. Wolfe was just about to get some information for a story from the girl, and only narrowly escaped herself. Pulling her out of the Middle East game before she gets killed, Wolfe’s editor instead sends her to Antarctica to report on the scientific discovery that’s about to happen.
When she arrives, it becomes a bit of a whodunit. Nobody on the team is certain who murdered Kevin Knox, but blame is falling on their Russian engineer, even though he is now a UK citizen. Yushkov is tough, burly, fought in the Russian army, and there’s a bit of a spark between him and Olivia Wolfe from the off.
Once they manage to drill down and extract water samples, all hell breaks loose. The drill breaks and once again sabotage is suspected. Then someone steals the samples, knocking nosey Olivia Wolfe out in the process. A visit by the Russians from the other scientific station reveals that Putin’s secret service, the SVR, are neck-deep in whatever’s going on. Another attempt is made on Wolfe’s life but Yushkov saves her.
The Brits drill again and no sooner have they got viable samples than they’re airlifted out to the Falklands, where counter terrorism agent Dan Casburn interrogates Wolfe and Yushkov. The story then shifts to the UK, where the samples are being analysed. What does Military Intelligence want with the microbes? Why are the Russians out to kill Yushkov? Is he a double agent, or just an engineer? And what’s the link between all this and a shady ISIS operative called Kabir Khan?
Larkin is an author addicted to generating intrigue. Just about every scene has you guessing at what angles the characters are working, and what the author’s not telling you. It fills Devour with tension. One minute Yushkov is saving Wolfe’s life, the next he’s buying an illicit firearm, and the next they’re making love. The only character Wolfe is able to trust is her friend Butcher, an ex-cop and father figure to her. He’ll get info in the background for her, while she’s involved in car chases, fights, assassination attempts and narrow escapes.
The pace never lets up. All the while, someone out there has got hold of the superbug from the lake and is conspiring to release it on the world. Mankind has never been exposed to whatever was beneath the ice, but MI5 and MI6 are struggling to work out who they should be chasing. They want to think it’s Wolfe, Yushkov and the Russians, but then disasters start to happen that even the Kremlin would never instigate.
What begins as a science-driven mystery turns into an international conspiracy thriller. Yes, there probably too many implausible moments, some of the link-ups in the plot are unlikely, and there are a few too-cheesy scenes as well. But this is escapist fiction, the storytelling is expertly handled, the characters are larger than life, and LA Larkin has a knack for clear, accessible prose. Never too much detail, never straying from the action. There’s even a sub-plot involving a stalker who has hacked Wolfe’s equipment and has very creepy intentions.
Another crime novel centred on superbugs is Catch Your Death, self-published by Mark Edwards and Louise Voss.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars