In this well-written thriller, author Kenneth Oppel succeeds in producing suspense from the early pages through to the satisfying end. He writes sharply, keeping the reader on edge so much so that some should be warned: there's danger to your fingertips if you're the nervous type and prone to biting your nails when tension arrives. The initial premise of The Devil's Cure is clever and unique. Although the novel eventually twists off into a fairly standard "cop chasing bad guy" plot, it does offer the author a chance to talk of things of more intellect than the standard conversations in the police procedurals we usually get, and all to the good.
David Haines, an intelligent but at least partially psychotic killer on Death Row when the story opens, awaits his execution for murder. He was captured after a two-year hunt by FBI agent (and former religious cult member) Kevin Sheldrake. Following the arrest, Sheldrake went into a kind of post-capture funk from which he still hasn't entirely emerged. Cancer researcher Laura Donaldson sees a video tape of a blood sample taken from Haines just days prior to his scheduled execution. To her surprise, she sees his blood T-cells fighting and destroying cancer cells with a pronounced efficiency that startles her. Here, in the killer's bloodstream, in his bone marrow, may well be the cure for cancer -- a possible boon to humankind she's searched for her entire adult life.
But David Haines isn't interested in providing a benefit to others. A religious fanatic, he believes that his blood is holy and that God (as his mad mind understands God) would consider it a sin if he should allow his blood to be taken from him. Indeed he considers all doctors to be blasphemers and was, prior to his arrest by Sheldrake, attempting to kill as many of them as possible. Medical assistance is improper, he reasons, as it turns a person away from God, keeping believers from seeking help through prayer. In that situation resides the conflict: the doctor wants the blood for research, and the killer doesn't want to offer it because to do so would be "sinful" in his mind. Not only that, he'd like to see the person requesting it dead.
Plenty of moments of good old-fashioned tension make this a real high-voltage page-turner. There exists some plot manipulation, i.e., convenient "coincidences" that enable the storyline to continue. One such example: when the FBI and Laura Donaldson become aware of the existence of a child sired by Haines, it turns out that Haines too is aware of the existence of this child although the mother had left him before the pregnancy showed and had never told him, indeed made certain he would never know. So how did he come to learn he had a son? He happened to see his old girlfriend and her child on television years later and recognized himself in the child. Well, even Dickens used such unlikely plot conveniences to his benefit. What are the chances of little Oliver Twist running away from the orphans' home and landing, amazingly enough, in the house of his own grandfather before either one of them is aware of their relationship? Pretty slim in real life.
The main characters -- the haunted FBI agent, the intelligent yet attractive cancer expert -- are both a bit clichéd, yet in this novel, each is portrayed interestingly enough for the reader to care. And there is a subplot (Laura's younger sister Susan has cancer) that is quite moving, especially in some of the conversations between the two sisters amidst the looming possibility of Susan's very near death. One such conversation brought a tear to my eye. Cancer is indeed, as Oppel states, a modern plague. Anyone looking for an entertaining, absorbing and, at times, thoughtful and moving read that offers both thrills and intelligence should grab up The Devil's Cure. Then, if possible, put aside enough time to read it through from beginning to end. You won't want to put it down until the last page is turned.