David J. Weinberg brings a budding screenwriter's sensibilities to bear on his first novel, the medical cum political thriller Mengele's Legacy. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he also injects his personal passions into a story that resurrects the notion of AIDS as a man-made disease born of conspiracy -- in this case, the still-pulsing black heart of Nazism is at the center of a scheme of global proportions. The novel's concept rivals some from the big names in the scientific suspense game -- Michael Crichton (to whom Weinberg pays homage by appending his surname to a character inspired by Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park) and
Robin Cook, to name a few -- and the international conspiracy in Mengele's Legacy calls to mind scenarios dreamt up by Ken Follett or rising star Allan Folsom. The tale's execution doesn't quite meet the big-league standards implied by its plot, however. It's a screenplay stretched across a novel's frame, and the result is often less than a perfect fit.
Middle-aged playboy Isaiah "Izzy" Schlesinger, America's number-one protein biochemist, still shoulders the childhood burden of survivor guilt passed down to him from his father, who never forgave himself for waiting until World War II was nearly over to join the military fight against Hitler and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Izzy's brilliant work at the Viral Research Institute in Manhattan brings him to the attention of one Dr. Peter Heneke -- the man responsible for a just-announced "cure" for HIV and, by inference, AIDS. A cryptic one-line message from the doctor on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, accompanied by a paperback copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, catapults Izzy into an intrigue of mind-numbing implications: that Josef Mengele, the infamous Butcher of Auschwitz, was able to create a genetically altered cell capable of destroying not only blacks, Jews and homosexuals, but all of mankind.
Leaving behind the Latvian-born doctor who just might be the woman he's been waiting for, Izzy embarks on an impulsive trip to Argentina to search for insights into Mengele's research. That trip ends in Izzy's abduction by a seductively competent young woman who turns out to be in league with Dr. Heneke. Izzy, it turns out, has been handpicked by Heneke and his cloistered team of researchers in Brittany to ferret out Mengele's research notes, papers that have been missing since before the end of WWII. Izzy's quest takes him from Brittany to Russia to Finland to Connecticut, and he's only ever one step ahead of Heneke's Nazi-sympathizing boss and a lethally sensuous female assassin. Determinded to unravel the medical mystery of HIV and AIDS despite the dangers to himself and his fiance, Izzy is chilled by what he discovers: having come far from its secretive beginnings in Africa mid-century, the cell Heneke calls "Mengele's Legacy" will likely bring about the near-extinction of humanity within decades.
Weinberg's tale might be better distributed as the blockbuster cinematic experience it resembles in the caricatured nature of some of the villains and some unnecessarily salacious sex scenes. As a novel, it could use one more thorough check-through by a careful editor or proofreader to correct typos (many compound words are split into component parts) and to catch repetitive verbiage. Extra line breaks would clear up the confusion when scenes shift suddenly from one paragraph to the next, and a strong guiding editorial hand might help tie up loose ends (like foreshadowing-type references to Izzy's recurring migraines that go nowhere) or rein things in when, toward story's end, the pacing gets a little too frenetic. Weinberg's imagination shows promise; if his energies can be shepherded down the right channels, that promise might bear richer fruit.