Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL

Code White
by Scott Britz-Cunningham

One of the great things about thrillers is that there are so many different kinds! There are crime thrillers, medical thrillers, religious thrillers, techno-thrillers, and many more. Most thrillers tend to fall into one category, but I’ve just read a notable debut that has elements of all four listed above!

Code White is an impressive first effort from medical doctor Scott Britz-Cunningham. The entire novel takes place in the course of a single day, making for a propulsive plot. At the heart of the tale is Chicago neurosurgeon Ali O’Day. She is one of a team of doctors who are attempting to make medical history—and are having it documented live on a national morning television show. They are using a new technology called SIPNI, short for Self-Integrating Prosthetic Neural Implant, to try to restore the sight of a blind child. During the operation, there’s an overhead announcement, “Mr. White, please report to security.” A nurse explains that it’s a security code, “It’s a bomb. A bomb in the hospital.”

Readers don’t have to wait long to find out who the mastermind of the plot is. It’s not a who-done-it, or even really a why-done-it, but more like a will-they-stop-it? Isn’t that always the way with bombs? So, in one corner you have your dedicated doctors trying to save an adorable child, in another you have your mad bomber, and then you have law enforcement. In this novel, that comes in many forms. The threat is first identified by the hospital’s head of security, Harry Lewton, but soon enough both the Chicago PD and the FBI are added to the mix. They do not help matters.

It is the unassuming Lewton who is the novel’s most appealing character. Character development is
generally the weakest element of most thrillers, and I was of two minds about it here. Britz-Cunningham has actually done an excellent job of giving his characters backstories and stressors in the present that influence their actions in the course of the crisis. In that way, they were well-rounded. Still, other than Lewton, it’s hard to get a real feel for them, and it’s hard to work up a lot of sympathy. The biographical details were in place, but the other details that would have brought them more to life—the quirks, the speech idiosyncrasies, the stuff that really humanizes—were absent. So, while there’s room for improvement, character was at least handled with some forethought and intelligence. Less head, more heart next time, Scott.

The plotting is clever and, as you can imagine, fast-paced, especially as the clock ticks down. There’s a significant amount of science, covering both medicine and technology, interspersed throughout the novel. It’s smart and interesting. Exposition is handled well. And then there’s the question of why I titled this review the way I did. You’ll see. Blending so many types of thriller together strikes me as a difficult thing to pull off. It shouldn’t work. But Britz-Cunningham does manage to pull it off. This isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s an impressive debut, and well-worth checking out.

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