The Fifth Vial by Michael Palmer

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The Fifth Vial by Michael Palmer

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Human organ trafficking is the target of this medical thriller, which has some awkward features but on the whole is a recommended read that uses its subject well and is strongly plotted.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0099489764

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Natalie Reyes is a fiery young lady. Once a budding athlete, an injury caused her to seek a second career in medicine. However her temperament and ideas that might be above her station may put paid to that before she leaves training college.

Joe Anson is certainly superior to her in medical ability, having created a wonder-drug from flora found near his field hospital in the depths of Cameroon. However his own condition may put paid to it ever coming to the market for the common good.

Ben Callahan has nothing to do with medicine. Once a teacher, he is trying to be a private eye, and despite - or because of - some success in tracing socialites' infidelities he is coming to the end of his tether (and bank balance). Being called upon to solve a case of human organ theft within the US makes him see the light, however, and he goes along with the professor who employs him wanting to make it a public issue of note.

You will start needing to know - and thankfully enjoy finding out - what they all have in connection with a dodgy cabal of moralistic traffickers.

Were this a blockbusting, zeitgeist-forming thriller of the likes Michael Crichton once was able to produce, organ theft certainly would be brought further towards the headlines. For the moment this remains a perfectly adequate and interesting medical thriller, that uses a form of globe-trotting scope and shadowy conspiracy to hit all the right notes while also being a subdued form of the airport novel it might have been. Of course, it may well not be worse off for that.

I certainly felt in safe hands with Michael Palmer as an ex-doctor with regard to the medical elements - which, it should be noted, should not put anyone off being interested in this book for queasiness reasons. And although I came across the horrid phrase 'cancer sticks' for cigarettes early on and wasn't convinced it was a character's voice affecting the text the rest of the writing gelled with me very comfortably.

The plotting might cause more of a problem, however, for while the story often happily goes in directions one doesn't expect - story arcs finding some form of apparent closure without the three yet coinciding, for example - the way people go under the knife and have immediate Damascene transformations felt a bit much.

Otherwise the book works as a thriller that does not try to moralise, or force-feed the subject to us, but uses it well as a means to an entertaining end. The goodies are suitably good - although Ben the Private Eye may be able to convince himself of his abilities and bravura approach to rescues that fails to convince us - and the baddies are nicely despicable.

I would forgive you for thinking the ending was a bit cloying, leaving open strands and at the same time promising an unlikely unwritten conclusion, but also agree that it might well work as a brave, unexpected end to one of the story strands.

Reading all of the above I can see further confirmation of this book's merits is in order. I came with no expectations, not knowing anything of Michael Palmer and his eleven prior books, but was entertained and surprised enough by this thriller to make it certainly recommendable. All the negative features outlined here are minor ones, considering what The Fifth Vial successfully manages to do. The title is a poor choice, too - sounding like some quest for a world-changing container.

While this might well not be a world-changing book (despite the note pushing legitimate organ donation at the end) it is a well-crafted and most readable thriller. While never stunning enough for a full house, it certainly is good enough to earn four valued bookbag stars.

I would like to thank Arrow Books for sending us a copy to sample.

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