St. Martin’s Griffin
Trade Paper, 421 pages, $14.95
Review by Sheila Merritt
The recent plethora of novels that combine and fuse horror with other genres is astounding. Most of these books fail. They come across as neither fish nor fowl. In the case of Patient Zero, however, Jonathan Maberry proves that it is possible to create a high octane hybrid novel that strikes a balance. The book successfully meshes the terrorist thriller theme with man-made zombies. Maberry employs sensationalistic material, and handles it with skillful execution. The action occurs at a breakneck speed, the characters have depth, and even the scientific technobabble is entertaining to read.
The novel has an unusual construction in the narrative: Part of the tale is told by an omniscient third person storyteller; the rest is a first person account by the protagonist, Joe Ledger. This device results in interesting points of view, with Joe’s take on the action being extremely entertaining: “I may not be a scientist but one of those bottom-line factoids everyone – Eastern, Western, alternative health – all of them will agree on is that dead guys don’t try to bite you. In movies, yeah okay. Not in Baltimore.”
Joe is a maverick law enforcement operative whose wiles and skills get him recruited into the inevitable shadowy, so hush-hush that its existence is not acknowledged, government agency. The covert agency is battling a pathogen induced plague which turns people into zombies. The plague is the brainchild of a mercenary pharmaceutics czar and Middle Eastern extremists. Each side thinks it is manipulating the other, and their different goals have treacherous trajectories.
Joe is assisted by highly trained military personnel (one of which, of course, is a plant for the bad guys) who are forced into seemingly unwinnable situations. The drugs used to create the zombies are of various strengths, so while some of the reanimated can be dealt with the standard shot or blow to the brain, others aren’t so easily dispatched.
Yet, for all his use of violent depictions, Maberry has not forgotten some basics of subliminal horror. He plays upon disturbing images such as everyday objects removed from their usual setting. As, for example, when Joe surveys an eerily abandoned area and finds: “Odd stuff. A deflated football lying on a brand-new left sneaker. An open briefcase whose papers had spilled out and become soaked with rust-colored water. A smashed cell phone. Two Frisbees and a push-up bra.”
Joe is not the only well written character in the novel. It is peopled with an interesting, colorful cast. One of the most memorable and amusing is the delightfully named Dr. Hu. Hu is the consummate science nerd: A lover of horror movies and pop culture, he is perversely jazzed by the concept that he is analyzing the work of a genuine mad scientist. His intellectual reverence for this loathsome adversary leads to interactions with Joe that are priceless.
To state that, with Patient Zero, Jonathan Maberry has written an excellent thriller with horror trappings is misleading. On the other hand, to say he’s composed a fine horror novel with thriller aspects isn’t quite right, either. Perhaps, it is most appropriate to simply conclude: The man has succeeded in his goal.