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Kenneth Oppel, a popular Canadian children's author, has written his first novel for grown ups, The Devil's Cure, and it's an exciting, high concept thriller that's a perfect beach blanket book.  That he comes achingly close to aiming higher holds out even greater promise for his future efforts.

The term "high concept" refers to the attention grabbing premise of such thrillers.  In this case : David Haines, a religious fanatic whose hatred of medicine fueled a doctor killing spree several years earlier, is about to be executed.  However, a lovely young cancer researcher, Dr. Laura Donaldson, discovers that his blood may contain the cure for cancer.  Despite Haines's hatred of doctors and his genuine religious belief in the sanctity of blood,  the good Doctor gets a court order allowing her to take some involuntarily.  As she's doing so, Haines stages a violent escape.  Now Laura, whose sister happens to be dying of breast cancer, and FBI agent Kevin Sheldrake, who caught Haines the first time around, have to track him down and try to bring him back alive.

Oppel handles all of the conventions of the genre with real skill.  Though the coincidences at the core of the plot won't withstand much scrutiny, they are sufficient to drive the plot, and though the story eventually devolves into the predictable gun battle between the principals, there are enough interesting
elements to make the book worthwhile.  In fact, one wishes he'd pursued the other angles.

Kevin Sheldrake turns out to have been a cult member himself when he was young.  The relationship he developed with his deprogrammer led to his interest in cults, his job investigating them for the FBI, and eventually his initial confrontation with Haines.  But his experiences have not only made him sensitive to the thought processes of folks like Haines, the abandonment of his own beliefs has left him feeling hollow.  He desperately wants to believe in God again, but having been burned once, he finds it impossible to commit again.  The best scenes in the book concern his struggles with himself, his efforts to expose his daughter to a variety of religious beliefs and her ultimate decision to become Catholic.

Kevin's spiritual questing is nicely played off against Dr. Donaldson's agnosticism and her reliance on reason and science, to the exclusion of all else, including much of her humanity.  Even the anti-scientific beliefs of David Haines are taken seriously, with Dr. Donaldson serving as a virtual poster girl for his view of the arrogance of the medical profession.  Unfortunately, Oppel pretty much abandons these plot threads when it comes time for the obligatory chase and showdown.  It's hard to avoid feeling that had the author chosen to give the clash of views among these three greater prominence, and made the thrilling climax a moral and spiritual one, rather than an all too familiar shoot-'em-up, it would have made for a more compelling story.

As is, he's written a book that anyone will enjoy on a plane or at the beach.  In the process he's at least raised the hope that he can do better.  We'll have to wait and see if he delivers on the promise, but we'll wait eagerly.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Thrillers
Book-related and General Links:
    -Kenneth Oppel (Author's Web Site)
    -Author Profile : Kenneth Oppel (CBC4 kids)
    -Author Profile : Kenneth Oppel (Scholastic ca)
    -CANSCAIP Member : Kenneth Oppel
    -BOOK PAGE : The Devil's Cure (Hyperion)
    -BOOK SITE : Sunwing  By: Kenneth Oppel
    -INTERVIEW : with Kenneth Oppel (achuka)
    -PROFILE : Bestselling children's author is just trying to grow up : Oppel's bat-books may overshadow his new adult novel (Paul Gessell, The Ottawa Citizen)
    -PROFILE : Kenneth Oppel (Dave Jenkinson, CM Magazine)
    -ARTICLE : Young Literary Critics Choose Oppel and Fitch (CBC Infoculture)
    -REVIEW : of Silverwing by  Kenneth Oppel.  (Dave Jenkinson, CM Magazine)

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