With his second novel, “Deadout,” Jon McGoran appears to be carving out a nice little niche for himself in the thriller genre. Like his debut, “Drift,” the intrigue centers around genetic modification in agriculture.
That description doesn’t get your heart racing? Trust me. McGoran’s novels paint a nightmarish picture where any entity with the money and know-how can warp the planet’s natural processes for malignant and deadly ends. Worst of all? They’re based in contemporary science. Picture a 1950s mad scientist horror movie, except where the lab-grown monsters are entirely plausible.
Like “Drift,” “Deadout” also uses a contemporary scientific news peg as a framework. In this case, the disappearance of bees.
“Deadout” brings back some characters from “Drift,” including Philadelphia police detective Doyle Carrick as the hero. A good thing about Carrick as a character is that he doesn’t know anything about all this genetically modified biological hocus-pocus either. That allows him to serve as a reader surrogate while he learns the basics to solve the case.
By bringing back Carrick, McGoran could have run the risk of what I call “Die Hard 2 Syndrome.” That’s when you have a regular-guy protagonist who just happens to stumble into an extraordinary situation in the original story. And then he just happens to stumble into a very similar extraordinary situation in the sequel, for no reason other than a twist of fate. “What? Terrorists are taking over the airport we’re in, similar to the way terrorists took over the building we were in that one time? Darn the luck!” (See also: “Speed 2 syndrome.”)
But McGoran gets around it by keeping the character of Nola Watkins on as Carrick’s organic farmer girlfriend. That gives him an excuse to walk into situations where some kind of agriculture-related nefariousness is going on.
Speaking of “Die Hard,” Carrick resembles that movie’s John McClain in his characterization as a salt-of-the-earth tough guy with a relatable and endearing streak of emotional vulnerability.
That comes into play early on when Carrick and Watkins are having some trouble in their relationship. They head out to Martha’s Vinyard, where Watkins has scored a temporary job. There, they find that farmers are desperate because the honeybees necessary to pollinate their crops are disappearing. A corporation is offering to bring in genetically modified bees to make up for that loss.
Could there be something sinister going on behind the scenes? (Spoiler: Yeah. There totally is. It’s a thriller. Did you really expect the answer to that question to be “no?”)
I don’t want to reveal much more. I will say that the story goes to some pretty dark places before it plays out. As in “Drift,” a big part of the fun is the jarring incongruity between the wholesome organic farming milieu, and the scary motherfuckery revealed once McGoran pulls back the curtain.
One welcome addition to “Deadout” missing from the previous book is the suggestion of vast, shadowy forces looming on the periphery of the action. Carrick’s work, McGoran implies, is just beginning. Fine by me. If there’s an upside to the fact that modern science is venturing into some ominous places, it’s the fact that McGoran should have no shortage of material in the foreseeable future.