Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
“The Lethal Elixir” by Dennis Ross is a certified stunner in the thrillers genre and for current-event ties-ins! It even rivals “I Saw What I Saw” by Tony Garritano in that regard! How can you take a serious topic like an illness unleashed on America (and the world), then turn it into an action-suspense thriller with a hint of romance and ER-styled drama? Well, that's what author Dennis Ross did! And it's pretty spectacular in that sense. It almost makes us afraid to say more, partly for fear of spoiling the book and partly for fear of being censored and buried in the search engines for talking about the Steve Carino virus and suggestions on how it might have spread or came to be. That's not what we or the author are necessarily saying, but there are implications in the story.
Something impressive in this novel is that the medical scenes are realistic and seemingly well-researched, and that's always appreciated. The lead character, Dr. Margaret Hamilton, is the Jack Shepherd of the novel: the doctor with the troubled social life who won't give up on her patients no matter what. Margaret, more commonly called “Maggie,” is a compelling enough character. She is smart, tactful, and highly motivated. She is, all in all, a very good and heroic person. Not only is Maggie a doctor, but she seems to act as almost an unofficial investigator or detective, trying to get to the bottom of what's making her patients so sick. This further emphasizes how caring and thoughtful Maggie is as a character. She's willing to go above and beyond where as other healthcare professionals in her position might've either given up or just treated it as water under the bridge—time to rest for the next long shift.
The following contains SPOILERS, so please be warned.
Beyond Maggie, we also get some other interesting characters. The first two to mention are the first two victims of this Ebola epidemic in America: Alex and Heidi. Alex Williamson is not really conscious for most of the book. However, the mystery surrounding him and his roguish, gym-rat lifestyle is very compelling. The other victim, Heidi Campton, also has her secrets. The story becomes a race against time. There is a mad dash to track everyone the victims may have come in contact with and to uncover the true source of the virus.
And here we get to a somewhat iffy section of the book: the villains/antagonists. On one hand, they're pretty interesting and attention-grabbing. On the other hand, they aren't believable in the slightest. They are almost Saturday-morning-cartoon levels of cartoony. Please, if you haven't read the book yet, skip the rest of the review and read it. There are even deeper spoilers ahead, so please be warned. So, anyway, the villains are agents of the Chinese Communist Party. Humorously, they're all given stereotypical white American names (presumably by the CCP) like Samuel, Frank, Jason, and Susan. This actually is quite unbelievable. Many Chinese people who come to America change their first-names or adopt English-sounding nicknames that are more familiar or easier to pronounce for the locals. The interesting but simultaneously less believable aspect of these characters is the moral dilemma these guys go through, especially Susan. The CCP must really stink at choosing and training agents because they have the personalities of high school basketball players who deal crack on the side to help their parents pay rent. First of all, how in the heck can they be so careless to assign someone like Susan to something like this? They didn't bother to train her in how not to get so emotionally involved with her potential victims? They didn't install an IUD in her or teach her about birth control anticipating that getting pregnant kinda might hinter an operation like this? How dumb and careless are they?
Susan's character arc is far and away the most interesting thing that happens in this novel, but it's simultaneously the most difficult to believe. The way she's treated at the end is so difficult to believe. Some of the things she says comparing China and America may be somewhat true, but it's presented in such an unbelievably preachy way that it's hard to take seriously. She assumes that being a prisoner in America is equal to being a citizen of China. Look, we have no love loss for that place personally, but we can respect and appreciate that there are amazing people in China who enjoy and love it there. Do we prefer the USA? Hell yeah, but to essentially say that the whole country of China is one big prison is kinda stretching, especially implying that it's equal to being in prison here in the USA. It just isn't, not for most of the Chinese population, many of whom wake up and enjoy the sun and being alive just like we do. It's made all the more cringe-worthy by the fact that our constitutional rights in the USA kinda went to hell in 2020, and at that point we weren't that much different from China in forcing things on our population and censoring information. To imply that China does this and the USA does not is simply not an honest premise, unfortunately. We wish it were! We wish America could be America. We wish it would live up to those ideals, but it sure has fallen short of them.
Another thing that was a bit hard to believe is the way that Susan is treated and expects to be treated as a prisoner of the USA. Everyone makes it sound like one big, happy ending at the end, like all is forgiven and she can expect to be let off easy with a light sentence. Alex and Heidi would like a word about that! Could you imagine if that rotten piece of crap Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, was let off easy because his brother was the “real villain” and his girlfriend was pregnant? Wouldn't that be a massive slap in the fact to the people who are now dead or permanently maimed because of him?
Anyway... if you can look past that, Susan is probably the most interesting character in this book. She's the most complex and undergoes the biggest arc by far. Think about it: an agent of China sent to essentially destroy the United States falls in love with the United States, has a baby with an American, and does a complete 180.
So, if you like medical thrillers and stories that involve espionage, this book could be for you!
Check it out!