Panacea by F. Paul Wilson follows two secret societies vying for control of the ultimate medical miracle, a cure-all called panacea (Available July 5, 2016).
Laura Fanning, deputy medical examiner for Suffolk County, has analyzed a charred body, discovering no evidence of murder—and, in fact, she notes the pristine internal organs are healthy and that the victim died before the suspicious house fire leveled the place.
Answers begin trickling in when a second person, Chaim “Chet” Brody, dies with a similar healthy constitution—only this time the fire department managed to douse the flames before the cadaver was completely immolated. Laura discovers that both men had tattoos featuring a line crossing over a shooting star and a snake coiled around what appears to be a human femur (readers are treated to a visual of a hand-drawn illustration, but why it’s repeated later on multiple pages depicting a single alteration in the line angle remains a mystery to me). Laura also observes that before Brody’s death, he had cryptically scrawled the number 536 in the palm of his hand.
Meanwhile, CIA agent Nelson Fife (specifically the Special Activities Division of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service) is tracking down members of a secret society that has the mythical panacea, a universal cure-all for any disease. You have arthritis, hepatitis, cancer, radiation poisoning? No problem. Just swallow a vial of the foul-tasting liquid and—bingo—the next morning you are completely recovered. Nelson’s supervisor, Arnold Pickens, doesn’t believe in the wonder drug or its proprietors called the panaceans. He is this-close to shutting down Nelson’s operation, admitting that he’s lost at his subordinate’s assertion of whoever controls the panacea controls the world. Nelson explains:
“Consider, just as a for-instance, North Korea or a jihadist group mutating the H7N9 bird flu to an airborne pathogen. They can release it worldwide and decide which populations they want to protect with the panacea and which they want to let die. Or simply release it and sell the panacea to the highest bidder. Do you see the possibilities?”
From the slow slump of Pickens’s features, Nelson knew he did.
More clues are unearthed by Laura when she learns that she has been requested by a Mrs. Cochran to perform an autopsy on her eight-year-old son Tommy, who’d been killed when a truck hit the bike he was riding. The boy had suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair—he wasn’t physically able to ride a bike. That is, until the family was approached by Brody, who’d defied the hive mentality of “do not gift the life-saver.” Laura’s autopsy reveals the boy, like the two other stiffs she had examined, had no medical aliments—though that’s impossible, especially in the case of Brody who’d had AIDS at one time.
Nelson Fife has a secret that he keeps from his employers. He is part of another surreptitious group—known as The Brotherhood—that, for generations, has been tracking down the panaceans and erasing evidence of the sect. The Brotherhood fits crazy religious to a T, as believers of the almighty being solely responsible for giving, prolonging, and taking life, and the panaceans being immoral for rendering a substance that, in their eyes, allows them to play God.
Described as monks of sorts, neither Nelson nor his Uncle Jim ever married, and Nelson is dogmatic in his views. He spews against a woman with Catholic beads who he sees half-stepping with her religion and acts openly bigoted toward an LGBT supporter handing out leaflets.
Nelson finally acquires samples of the panacea and convinces Pickens to have it administered to two terminally ill CIA agents at Walter Reed. When both recover, Nelson gets the green light with the financial black account he’s been waiting for to go after the panaceans. Though Nelson now has the agency’s vast resources to make headway, like penetrating Laura’s LAN to wipe evidence clean, I wondered why this monk would want the all-powerful Langley group to have an open access to this Pandora’s box of secrets. Sure it gives unlimited help, but with that, shouldn’t he be concerned with too much being revealed?
At first, Laura hadn’t appeared to be much of a threat to The Brotherhood, but then she releases a picture of an emaciated Brody, before taking the panacea, to the media. Nelson digs further into Laura’s past, and discovers an unexpected connection between her and his uncle Jim from almost twenty years earlier. The cat’s now on its way out of the proverbial bag, and he is worried that after so many long years of searching out these mysterious panaceans, his mission is in danger of being exposed, sending the panaceans once again into deep underground.
On a personal level, Uncle Jim, realizing he has reared an obsessed personality, tries to steer Nelson:
“... Tell me, Nelson: What do you do for fun?”
“Yes, fun. As in a pleasurable activity with no purpose other than the enjoyment it brings. Like scuba diving or hiking or playing basketball or reading a thriller. You know: fun.”
I glanced back at this paragraph and chuckled while mentally adding “reading a F. Paul Wilson thriller.” Because, it is fun. A beach-perfect read, with some unanticipated twists, and lots of colorful characters.
Perhaps an overabundance of coincidences (too many crosslinks between characters, and with a high incidence of life-threatening diseases among them), but that’s easily forgiven with the tight, clipping-along action that fans would expect from the creator of the Repairman Jack series.
And, even if I’m a bit worn out on religious zealots in fiction (and secret societies may not be much farther down on my give-that-trope-a-break list…why do fictional enigmatic societies go to enormous lengths to hide their identity but then they brand themselves with distinctive tats?), Mr. Wilson writes with fresh abandon, almost as if he created the genre. He’s an entertaining storyteller (deserving recipient for the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement) and able to deftly handle intersecting multiple storylines.
Once I realized I had crossed into this hyperbolic arena, I resolved my expectations, and had a good time in what’s even alluded to in the book as X-Files territory.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.