1998; 373 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Action-Thriller. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
The Spanish Flu was a devastating pandemic that swept across the globe in two deadly waves in 1918-20, killing 3%-5% of the world population. Now (1998 in the book), if a defector from North Korea is to be believed, it is about to make a reappearance. Which raises some serious concerns, since vaccines weren’t yet being developed back in 1920, and no labs now have any samples of the virus to study.
But five victims of the flu are known to have been buried in an inhospitable mining camp well above the Arctic Circle, and the frigid temperatures up there mean that it might be possible to exhume their bodies, extract the frozen virus, and start developing a vaccine as a precautionary measure. So an expedition is launched to retrieve the corpses.
What a disappointment it is, then, to find that someone has beaten the expedition to the site. And fairly recently, judging from the graffiti left behind.
Now what possible interest could anyone else have in those bodies?
What’s To Like...
The First Horseman is written by John Case, a pseudonym for a husband/wife writing team that wrote six action/thriller books between 1997-2007. It’s actually a rare re-read for me, but after 15 years, I remembered next to nothing about it, save that I liked it a lot the first time.
There is a rather lengthy prologue, and our protagonist, a reporter named Frank Daly, doesn’t make his entrance until page 50. I liked him; he can be bone-headed at some times, pushy at others, and carries emotional baggage in the form of an estranged relationship with his father. But Susannah, a misguided airhead, was fun to follow as well.
John Case explores three main themes here – the threat of a pandemic, religious cult brainwashing, and eco-terrorism. The action starts immediately, with a Manson-like raid that will take a while to tie back into the main storyline. This isn’t really a whodunit tale; it’s more a matter of how are you going to stop the baddies.
I especially liked the historical facts about the Spanish Flu (it killed more Americans than the two World Wars combined) and the Arctic setting, both of which will leave you shivering. There are also some neat references to things like Pachelbel’s Canon and Warfarin. The story shows its age – information gets faxed, not e-mailed; AOL is the goliath of Internet Service Providers, and it is not uncommon for a webpage to take 30 seconds to load. But that brought back some keen memories.
This is a standalone novel, which is true of all of John Case’s books. The title gets explained on page 257, and the ending ties up the main storyline adequately. The First Horseman makes for a good airplane/beach read with its fast pacing, sufficient plot twists, and smattering of profanity.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Gazumped (adj.; British) : swindled (archaic).
Others : Jejune (adj.); Messet (n.); Claque (n.); Halcyon (adj.)
Inoue turned another page. “Projectile vomiting, explosive hemorrhaging – mouth, nose, eyes … good lord, listen to this! Some of them turned blue. ‘Bright blue.’”
Karalekis nodded, as much to himself as anyone else.
“That doesn’t surprise you?” Inoue asked. “People turning blue?”
Karalekis shrugged. “It happens. It’s called ‘cyanosis.’”
Fitch turned to the doctor. “You know what this guy’s talking about? Any of this ring a bell for you?”
Karalekis rolled his eyes. “It could be anything.”
Fitch and Inoue stared at him. Finally, Fitch said, “No. It couldn’t be ‘anything.’ It couldn’t be the common cold, for instance. It couldn’t be hemorrhoids.” (pg. 30)
For him, it was the worst of possible worlds – a fusion of vertigo and claustrophobia. The shaft was barely as wide as his shoulders, dimly lit and evil-smelling. He had no way of knowing how far it descended – whether thirty feet or a hundred – but it was a long way to fall, in any case. And the ladder was slick, slimy to his hands, greasy to his feet. Twice he slipped. Twice he hung on.
And then he was on the ground, listening to his heart race as he stood at the end of a low, dank tunnel that reminded him – ludicrously – of an old horror movie. The Thing. Where the bad guy turns out to be a carrot. (pg. 361)
I never thought my fairy godmother would be a five-foot-ten-inch California girl. (pg. 196)
As mentioned, the ending is adequate, but not spectacular. While the primary plotline does get resolved, those readers interested in the “bigger picture” issues (like me), will find them tied up in a perfunctory manner in an awkward and brief epilogue. The government quashes our protagonist reporter’s scoop, the crisis with the conveniently-evil North Koreans is deftly parried, and life goes on as before.
And while I loved the Arctic expedition part (it was the only portion of the book I recalled after 15 years), once that’s over, The First Horseman falls back to the ever-popular but overdone action-thriller theme of worldwide destruction via pandemic. I personally would’ve been happier if the whole story had taken place in Arctic settings and with focus being on how to deal with the "Hannibal Lector on bok choy" North Koreans. There’s enough terror with that theme; leave the lunatic-fringe religious cults for a separate book.
8 Stars. Add ½ star if you’ll be reading The First Horseman on a beach or in an airplane. Add another ½ star if you’d rather read about crazies patterned after Charlie Manson (or Jim Jones) than Kim Jong-un.