Phage by Mark Tamplin

Mark Tamplin
Self-Published, 480 pages
Review: Steve Ironside

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Whenever I see a novel written by an expert in the field on which that novel is based, I worry that the author’s love and knowledge of the subject will get in the way of the narrative. Fortunately for Mark Tamplin, a specialist in microbiology and immunology, that isn’t the case. Instead his knowledge provides a solid base for the explosive novel that unfolds.

The idea behind Phage is a microbiologist’s worst nightmare: a “lone gunman” bio-terrorist is on a self-serving crusade armed with an insidious virus he’s created. Standing in his way is Dr Sam Townsend, a brilliant scientist who works with both the Centre for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security, protecting the US from enemies foreign, domestic and microscopic. Dr Sam is Uncle Sam’s first phone call in the event of outbreak.

In order to set the scene, Tamplin has split the book into two parts – there’s a “teaser” mission which builds understanding of the main scientific concepts upon which the book relies, and establishes the main characters. After that comes the main tale in which Townsend and his team are forced to go on the run. The story then becomes a classic race against time to uncover and thwart the terrorist’s schemes and stop him from triggering his virus. In order to do so, Sam finds himself having to contend with ghosts from his past and the consequences of events that he unwittingly set in motion.

A techno-thriller is nothing without a good set of twists and turns, and Tamplin delivers. The cat-and-mouse game that Townsend has to play with the FBI is particularly satisfying, revealing moves just far enough ahead to keep it interesting. Sometimes however the pace of reveals was a little frustrating.
Because of the subject matter, comparisons with the likes of The Andromeda Strain, and Michael Crichton more generally are inevitable – indeed, there’s a self-aware joke along those lines in the book itself. I think that may be too easy a comparison, despite the similarities to some of Crichton’s “formula”, where a group of experts are brought together in order to defeat a technological horror against a deadline.

Certainly the first part of the book fits that formula: It starts with the now familiar “whistle blower” letter, setting up the rest of the book as Sam’s account of an actual historical event. Initially, there’s a lot of scientific information built in to the early narrative, interrupting the description of Patient Zero’s life, and introducing Townsend’s team of experts who go in to deal with the serious outbreak of a disease. These sections are disjointed and it took me a couple of attempts to get through those first three or four chapters as I desperately hoped the whole book wouldn’t be the same.

I needn’t have worried. Once you’ve got past the teaser, and the credits roll on the main feature, the style becomes much more reminiscent of Tom Clancy or Frederick Forsyth, with events unfolding at an ever increasing pace and (unlike Crichton) focussing more on the characters rather than the events, giving the whole thing a more journalistic feel. The clock doesn’t wait for the protagonists, as the terrorist’s plan unfolds largely by itself; and towards the end, I found myself reading faster and faster, itching to turn the next page in order to keep that sense of urgency and momentum going as the characters hurtle towards the book’s soaring conclusion. The science recedes into the background; the heavy lifting having already been done; it feels more like The Fourth Protocol than Prey.

Techno-thrillers need a strong link to reality to engage the reader, and there’s a deeper message here as well as a stark warning. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.” In this age of biological and genetic miracles, that has never been more true, and with consumers increasingly separated from how food is prepared, the security of our food supply has never been more important.

The first few awkward chapters aside, this book demands to be devoured in a single sitting in order to get the full impact. This is the first Sam Townsend novel; I do hope that it’s not too long before the next book comes along – now that Tamplin has set out his stall, I really can’t wait to see what happens next.