If I was to sit down and rack my brain to think of subjects that could serve as the basis of a gripping thriller, I probably wouldn’t include “botany” on that list. Well, not before I read “Drift” by Jon McGoran, anyway.
Turns out plant science can make for a pulse-pounding story. And I’m not talking Day-of-the-Triffids-style monster plants, either. I’m talking about regular ol’ plant science, grounded in modern-day technology.
The “drift” in the title refers to cross-pollination, which drives the plot. Doesn’t exactly get your heart racing? Trust me on this one. In capable hands, nuts-and-bolts (or nuts-and-berries if you will … sorry) science can make for some very engaging reading. And McGoran’s hands are eminently capable.
It’s basically a techno thriller. But with plants.
McGoran draws on contemporary developments in bioengineering to depict a queasily plausible scenario where unethical parties can exploit those scientific advances — manipulating natural processes at will to produce drugs or weapons. To McGoran’s credit, this isn’t some hysterical, misinformed screed about GMOs. He periodically steps back, providing a rational assessment of the benefits and risks of the scientific advances at the book’s core.
Still, don’t get the impression that this is some dry treatise on modern agriculture. It’s got all the components that fans of slam-bang thrillers (like me) demand of their page-turners. An intriguing mystery. Compelling characters. Kick-ass action sequences. And simmering tension building to a final setpiece that … well, don’t want to give anything away here. Just stick with it.
The story concerns Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick, who gets a 30-day suspension and ends up spending it in rural Pennsylvania. There, he encounters some organic farmers who are wrapped up in the political and ethical issues of commercial crop cultivation.
McGoran makes a canny decision in casting Carrick as the reader surrogate, who’s initially not into this stuff. The story gets some nice comic moments out of his reactions meeting some of the eccentric characters who are.
Even if Carrick doesn’t know anything about organic farming, he’s still got a cop’s instincts that tell him when something fishy is going on. A bunch of known thugs showing up in this small farming community, a mysterious developer buying up land, threatening phone calls to the holdouts and some apparent junkies who seem strangely insistent about their abstinence from drugs all point to something going on under the surface.
With the assistance of new-found friends in the organic farming community, Carrick begins piecing it together and learning as he does. I hasten to add that this isn’t one of those edu-ma-cational thrillers that periodically brings the story to a screeching halt so some character can awkwardly deliver a lengthy academic lecture. (*Cough cough! Dan Brown. Cough cough!* Pardon me. Something caught in my throat.) McGoran keeps the pacing quick, and the storytelling tight.
So read “Drift” for the entertainment value. And if you learn something along the way, so much the better.