Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: The Black Death

September is Outbreak the PorPor Books Blog !

Book Review: 'The Black Death' by Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Black Death’ (354 pp) first was published in 1977 in hardcover; this paperback version from Ballantine Books was issued in March, 1978. The artist who provided the effective cover illustration is uncredited.

The novel is set in New York City in the late 70s. It’s Labor Day weekend, and the city is in the grip of a major heat wave. A strike by the Sanitation Worker’s Union means that garbage has gone uncollected for weeks. The city’s financial crisis means that many agencies and offices are underfunded and understaffed.

Sarah Dobbs, a sixteen year-old girl from an affluent family, has just gotten off a bus at the Port Authority terminal. She is returning to the city from a vacation spent in California. Sarah isn’t feeling well, and she just wants to get home and get some rest. When a pimp named Flash tries to recruit her, Sarah can’t help coughing right into his face……….

Within the next 48 hours, Sarah Dobbs is deathly ill, and in the intensive care ward of Metropolitan Hospital. The attending physicians have diagnosed her with a particularly virulent case of pneumonia. They think the scratches on the girl’s forearm are from injecting drugs. Little do they know that Sarah is not a drug user. But she did take an up-close photograph of ground squirrel while vacationing in California…..and the squirrel had fleas. Fleas that have infected Sarah Dobbs with plague……..

‘The Black Death’ is a medical thriller that deals with an outbreak of plague in New York City. It’s an effective book, probably due in part to the fact that author John S. Marr (b. 1940) is a physician, and the book reflects his knowledge of the intricacies of autopsies, hospitalization, public health, and epidemiology. Indeed, during the mid-70s Marr served as New York’s primary epidemiologist, and directed the city’s response to the Swine Flu outbreak of 1976.

A number of features make ‘The Black Death’ an effective novel. One is the use of a documentary-based prose style similar to that showcased by Michael Crichton in his medical thrillers. Another is its excellent re-creation of the state of New York in the late 70s, and its unique atmosphere of squalor, decay, and chaos:

Whatever had been bothering him in Chelsea was gone, or at least set aside, by the time he passed Sheridan Square in the Village. Two drag queens dozed on a bench in the dusty little park. From the smashed wine bottle, squeezed-out tubes of K-Y jelly, and the clumps of Kleenex, Hart concluded that the night there had been a busy one.

They walked to 118 East 104th Street, a decaying five-story walkup that was about 80 years old, built for the middle-income Irish and Italians moving up from the Lower East Side to escape the Jews……After some bloody skirmishes in the early sixties, the Irish and Italians left, mainly for the suburbs. The few who remained were locked into the area by poverty. “Boy, what a dump”. Maldonado looked at the explosion of garbage on the steps – banana peels, orange rinds, a rotting papaya, smashed bottles, an empty Pampers box, a broken doll. Several bulging plastic sacks ballooned with the foul gas of fermenting garbage.

The night was hot in the streets and even hotter in the small basement apartment.

“Your son is very sick,” Rodriguez told the old woman in Spanish. “He must go to the hospital.”

The woman pursed her mouth and shook her head. She looked at the man stretched out on the bare mattress on the floor. He wore only a pair of trousers. He was breathing very rapidly and his chest gleamed with sweat. His chin was smeared with dried blood.Two small children in diapers played on the dirty, cracked linoleum floor nearby. Three men and two women sat on a sagging sofa drinking beer and watching television.

The only weak note in the novel is the inclusion of the 70s thriller novel staple of the Megalomaniacal Military Officer; in this case, it's a General Daniel Cosgrove, who sees the situation in New York City through the dual lenses of paranoia, and opportunism. A sub-plot involving Cosgrove runs throughout most of the book, and contributes to its rather contrived ending.

Summing up, however, 'The Black Death' manages to be a very entertaining medical thriller and a great evocation of the era in which the Rolling Stones song 'Shattered' summed up the state of New York City:

Don't you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the west side
Bed bugs uptown
What a mess this town's in tatters I've been shattered
My brain's been battered, splattered all over Manhattan
Uh-huh, this town's full of money grabbers
Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don't mind the maggots, huh

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