What could be more suspenseful right now than the question of whether a virulent disease, released into the world, can be contained? In a time filled with unnerving ironies and coincidences, another arrives in Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, “The Red Lotus,” which delves into biologically engineered pathogens and the possibility that profiteers and unscrupulous laboratory scientists have created a plague for sale.

Bohjalian specializes in well-researched, topical thrillers with complex plots and flawed but principled heroes struggling with some of the world’s most intractable problems. His 21 novels have involved homelessness, animal rights, human trafficking and genocide, to name just a few; several have also focused on ethical issues in alternative medicine, from midwifery to homeopathy. But with “The Red Lotus,” he has managed to be topical in a way he could not have predicted.

Set over 10 days in Vietnam and New York, the novel opens with Alexis Remnick, a young ER doctor, waiting by a hotel pool not far from Da Nang for her boyfriend, Austin, to return from a bike trip into the mountains. Their romance began six months earlier when Austin, a fundraiser at her hospital, appeared in the ER with a bullet wound. He’d been at a Manhattan dive bar playing darts with a friend when a “crazy junkie” shot him by accident. She also treated what Austin claimed were cat bites on his fingertips. Not exactly a “meet cute,” Alexis reflects by the pool, but a good story to tell their children someday. Yet where is Austin? This is the last day of their bike tour (his idea), a kind of pilgrimage to honor his father and uncle’s service in Vietnam. That morning he rode alone to the Hai Van Pass, to be near “where his father had been wounded and his uncle had died.” But now he’s late.

A promising beginning, with a cold splash of dread, although we discover almost immediately what happens to Austin. Not so Alexis, who sets out on a panicked search for him with the tour leaders. They find nothing but several innocuous-looking Psych energy gels lying on the mountain road where Austin had been biking. After Austin’s body is recovered the next day by the Vietnamese police, who determine that he was the victim of a hit and run, Alexis takes those gels home to New York, along with Austin’s other effects, and tries to return to work. Yet she is hounded by doubts. It’s now clear that Austin lied to her about his father’s military service, but why? Then she discovers his laptop has been “wiped clean.” Also, what to make of the strange skewer-like puncture wound on the back of his hand, which she noticed while identifying his body at the morgue? And were those really cat bites on his fingertips?

Growing increasingly suspicious, she enlists the aid of a private investigator recommended by his former boss, Sally, the hospital’s chief fundraiser. Sally’s office happens to be near a laboratory that conducts research on rats; she’s also having an affair with Douglas, Austin’s dart-playing friend from the bar, an inexplicably wealthy travel writer and obvious bad guy. Meanwhile in Vietnam, Quang, a police captain, deduces that Austin’s death might be linked to the death of a Vietnamese food chemist and a fire at her lab, which happened around the same time. To further complicate matters, we keep receiving detailed dispatches about rats as disease carriers from a mysterious first-person source, speaking in italics. We are also reminded, periodically, that Alexis still has those Psych gels.

I’m not giving away as much of the story as it seems: The plot becomes labyrinthine as we move back and forth between New York and Vietnam, joined by more characters and more unsettling facts about rats. Especially rats as laboratory subjects infected with pathogens. Alexis’ unhappy childhood and her history with self-harm are added to the mix, which tangles the story further, though readers who crave suspense will get it, along with a grim chill from reading about a plague while COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, menaces the world. They will get, as well, a resolution that swiftly unsnarls the many narrative threads, metes out punishments to the evil and (mostly) spares the good.

Suspense novels are valuable in terrible times – they offer distraction from the news and from our own fears. They also answer our desire for quick resolution, even if we can hardly believe one is possible. And yet one has to ask: If a novel’s subject is potential global suffering, is distraction really a good idea?

Bohjalian’s focus on current problems in his novels is admirable, and in this case feels prescient; but the villains in “The Red Lotus” are such sociopaths, and some of the plot twists so farfetched, that the specter of biological warfare begins to feel improbable instead of truly threatening. Which may seem like a book critic’s quibble, until you consider that opting for diversion and reassurance – rather than paying attention to clear warnings – got us to where we are now.

Suzanne Berne is a novelist whose books include “A Crime in the Neighborhood” and “The Ghost at the Table.”


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