Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Thomas P. Hopp:
Mystery in the Time of Coronavirus

I write medical mysteries and natural disaster thrillers, so the current COVID-19 crisis looks strangely familiar to me. As we all hunker down with a good book or twelve until this latest nemesis runs its course, I’d like to offer you some insights into what may be the scariest of all subgenres of mystery fiction, The Biological Thriller.

Before I delve into the details, a little about me. Although I have been publishing novels and short stories for two decades now, I started out as a biotechnology researcher. I’ve worked in multiple Nobel Prize winning laboratories, two of which received their medallions after I worked there—that’s a hint at the importance of my contributions. And more germane to this discussion, my work involved molecular immunology, the field most central to the world of viruses, vaccines, and humanity’s ability to resist epidemics. So there you have it.

The current epidemic underscores the sad fact that society has yet to truly gain control over such murderous microbes as coronavirus, influenza, Ebola, HIV, measles, and a long list of less lethal or prevalent viruses. Because this is an article about fiction, I’m not going to dwell on advice regarding hand washing, avoiding crowds, and all the other measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. You get quite a sufficient dose of that from the news media, and that’s as it should be. Play it safe until this pestilence passes, which it will, like all the others that came before it, including bubonic plague. And of course, my sympathies to anyone laid low, or God forbid, dealing with a life-threatening case, yours or someone else’s. Whew.

This is a tough subject to write about, and to some extent a tough subject to read about in a work of fiction or watch in a film dramatization. The average fiction fan might prefer a good locked room mystery, or a cozy after-the-fact mystery, precisely because the murderer is ultimately contained, constrained, detected, and put out of circulation. Not so much, with viruses. In today’s parlance they—well—go viral, don’t they?

Past epidemics have inspired many a story, more than I can cover here. From Poe’s short story, The Masque of Red Death, to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, to King’s The Stand, the list goes on and on. And Hollywood is never far off this trail, having made film adaptations of the above-mentioned stories and a host of others like Hot Zone, Outbreak, and surely more to come. I myself am no slouch, having published The Smallpox Incident, about a bioterror attack with an engineered virus, The Neah Virus, about an Ebola-like natural outbreak in the Seattle area, and a cozier little piece about murders with red tide toxin in my short story, Blood Tide, published in the anthology Seattle Noir.

So what is it that makes a good Biological Thriller? Where do these stories draw their power from? You’re probably guessing the answers already, right?

First off, they all depend on the innate panic that rises in the chest of anyone who has ever been laid low by fever, constrained to bed by fits of coughing, covered by a scary rash, starved by an inability to keep solid food down, or any of a dozen other maladies. That would be everyone, right? Very few people have opened a door and found a body lying there with a knife in the back. But spend a night in sweat-soaked sheets racked by I’m-fixing-to-die feelings? Everyone.

This notion probably gives an unfair advantage to biological thrillers, because the acceleration of heart rate, increased adrenaline, and sheer uneasiness evoked by such tales are probably clinically measurable quantities. But I have a sense that stories about virally spreading villains also have their limitations based on the very thing that gives them strength—it’s that going-viral thing. It can get out of hand in a story, just as it can get out of hand in the real world.

A problem writers of such stories inevitably face is the difficulty of bringing their tale to a satisfying conclusion. That is to say, what kind of a story arc have you written if the viral plague kills everyone? Wipes out humanity completely? That’s not going to be a very satisfying reader experience, wouldn’t you say? So the author has been blessed with a scary start, but how does that lead to a—what?—happy ending?

Well, of course, there are ways. Some are more satisfying than others. In The Stand and similar tales, Society was destroyed and the apocalypse was more or less complete. I’m not a big fan of such endings. Neither are a lot of other people. Or then there’s The Andromeda Strain. Credit Michael Crichton with making outer space a scary place, but he gets a big demerit from me for saving humanity by simply having the virus quit and go away. Sorry if that was a spoiler, but hoo boy, that’s really a pretty lousy ending. Imagine a murder mystery in which the private investigator learns the murderer has just decided never to kill again, THE END. Uh-uh. Doesn’t work for me.

Now, I remind you I’m a bona fide medical researcher. So, from my learned position, almost all medical thrillers have their weaknesses at the end, because they just don’t make biological sense. But that’s not a concern of the average reader who doesn’t have the in-depth training to understand—or care about—the scientific flaws in a story. Most readers just want justice to be done, the world to be set right, and perpetrators to be punished in the end. That’s tough to achieve when the agent of death is a remorseless, unconscious, ever-spreading microbe.

Still, it can be done. I’ve tried my best to write satisfying endings in my own tales of viral mayhem. I’d like to tell you exactly how, but that would spoil the scary fun of reading and finding out for yourself. Perhaps now is a good time, while a simple trip to the supermarket is a terrifying prospect and staying at home with a good book looks like the best option. Take heart that an old medical researcher like me can see these things through to a happy ending.

Thomas P. Hopp is a former medical researcher and thriller writer who lives in Seattle. Learn more about his stories as well as his contributions to coronavirus research here.


Jenni Legate said...

Great post. I read The Neah Virus and loved it, so I know you have the skill to provide a satisfying ending. I'm looking forward to reading The Smallpox Incident. Thanks for keeping us entertained.

beverly said...

Great article, Tom! I also really liked The Neah Virus and The Smallpox Incident. Both well researched and I enjoy your character development. It kept the pages turning as fast as I could read!
Beverly K Terry