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‘The Red Lotus’ a taut and (unexpectedly) timely thriller

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It’s easy to forget how long the publishing process really takes. Books are written and proofed and edited and reproofed and reedited and so on and so forth, with release dates scheduled months in advance. So far in advance, in fact, that you occasionally wind up with something that is accidentally timely.

So it is with Chris Bohjalian’s latest thriller “The Red Lotus” (Doubleday, $27.95). It’s excellent in the way that Bohjalian’s work is always excellent – smart, crisply-paced, well-plotted – but it also happens to feature a central plot point revolving around the threat of a weaponized disease. While there are essentially zero actual similarities between Bohjalian’s plot and current events, the timing of the book’s release means that the comparison is unavoidable.

Still, once you move past that odd bit of synchronicity, you can enjoy this book for what it is – a taut and twisting work that features the intrigue and idiosyncrasy that are hallmarks of Bohjalian’s work. It is evocative and exciting, a quick and engaging read that will prove a welcome experience for fans of thrillers.

Alexis Remnick is an ER doctor in New York City, smart and sharp and devoted to saving lives. Her life doesn’t leave her a lot of room for a personal life; she’s got a few friends and a contentious relationship with her mother, but bot much beyond that. She’s all about the work.

But one Saturday night shift in the ER, she meets Austin. She treats him for a gunshot wound of all things, the result of a freak encounter in a bar with a crazed junkie. As it turns out, he works at the very same hospital in development – he’s a fundraiser. Their relationship is a bit of a whirlwind.

Just seven months into their relationship, Austin – an avid cyclist – invites her to go on a bike tour in Vietnam. It has a dual purpose, though; Austin wants to pay his respects at the spots where his father and uncle were wounded during their time as soldiers. One day, he sets out on his own to do just that.

But along the way, he’s taken by a mysterious group of men. As it turns out, there’s a lot about Austin that Alexis doesn’t know – a lot that no one knows. But she’s going to learn, even after Austin’s broken body turns up, the victim of a likely unsolvable hit-and-run on his bicycle.

Or so it seems.

Something about it all simply doesn’t add up. Even as she grieves, Alexis can’t let it go. The more she finds out about Austin, particularly the lies that he told, the more she suspects that there’s a lot more to all of this than meets the eye.

And in the middle of it all – rats.

As we follow some of the other players – a hospital administrator, a private detective, a shadowy mystery man – we’re privy to even more information than Alexis is … information that could prove unspeakably deadly.

That’s all I’m comfortable revealing to this point. One of the joys of Bohjalian’s work is the delicate intricacy of his plotting; he has a wonderful knack for layering his storylines, switching perspectives and leaping from point to point. These shifts allow us to engage with the truly tangled web that is “The Red Lotus” while still keeping the characters in the dark. Not every writer is comfortable leaning into the notion that the reader can know more about what’s going on than the characters, but Bohjalian is confident enough in his talents to do just that, deftly maneuvering the narrative in such a way as to surprise us all, character and reader alike.

Again, we can’t ignore the unfortunate timeliness of the disease-spreading subplot (one I’m not going to delve into here; that info is revealed early enough, but the specifics are definitely spoilable), but it should be noted that it’s simply a device. No, what makes this book compelling is the mysteries nestled within mysteries and the characters each dealing with their individual (and incomplete) view of the big picture.

“The Red Lotus” is a globe-spanning adventure, one that combines international intrigue with the high-adrenaline, high-pressure realm of the big city emergency room. It’s a book that sets the healers against those who would do harm, the selfless against the selfish. It is sweeping and relentless in its pacing, with Bohjalian unleashing his usual well-honed dialogue. If you’re hungry for thrills, this book will feed that need.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:51

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