Author: Michael Palmer
Publisher: St Martin’s Paperbacks (2007)
The Fifth Vial is a medical thriller in the ‘surely that couldn’t happen outside fiction…could it?’ vein. In what appear to be unrelated incidents a coroner in Florida finds recent surgery scars on the body of an unidentified man hit by a truck on the highway and a Boston detective is hired to investigate the situation. Medical student Natalie Reyes is suspended from duty and heads to Brazil to deliver a research paper and in Cameroon a brilliant doctor’s experimental drug is in danger of never reaching production due to his own health problems.
The characters here are all a little over the top but they’re fairly credible in the context of the story. The never-ending tragedies that befall Natalie do verge on far-fetched and I did start to wonder just how many more perilous situations one 35 year old woman could survive but you expect that kind of thing with these books and I was happy to go along for the ride. There’s more than one protagonist in this book and I enjoyed their different points of view and the way their parallel stories wound themselves together. I wasn’t overly fond of Natalie so it was nice to spend a chunk of time with different characters, especially fledgling detective Ben Callahan whom I did develop a soft spot for.
The plot is what you’d expect from this kind of thriller: lots of action and twists and revealing of things (and people) that are not as they first appear. It’s a pretty well-constructed example of the genre although the resolution is a little obvious and a couple of the plot devices seemed forced to me. Why would bad guys hire a complete stranger to be a flight attendant for a plane carrying only 6 passengers? Could they not get their own packets of peanuts rather than risk showing their entire evil empire to Joe Schmo? However, the book did keep me up past my bedtime which is a sure sign of a good story-telling.
I had just about given up on medical thrillers after reading the last couple of Robin Cook novels in which his insufferable moralising about the evils of modern health care administration overtook any pretence of story-telling. Happily though The Fifth Vial is a solid example of what the genre should be: an entertaining page turner that makes you wonder which parts might just be happening somewhere in the world right now.
My rating 3.5/5 (and would have been a 4 if it had 50 less pages)