Dust to Dust is a medical thriller by the acclaimed best-seller writer Ken McClure and, while number 8 in the Steven Dunbar fortunate series, is the first one for me to read. After some thoughts, I’ve decided to approach this new author with this novel for an excellent reason: it debates a theory I found always fascinating, the one about the controversial origin of the Black Death.
What’s the controversy, you might ask? There’s nothing controversial about it -it was the first dramatic occurrence, at least on that scale – of the bubonic plague that swept Europe in 1347-1350 (and later, if you consider the outskirts) killing about 1/3 of the continent’s population (and inspiring some admirable works of art, like Boccaccio’s Decameron, the first but certainly not the last one to portrait that apocalypse). But things might be more mysterious than that – starting from the causes.
Recently scientists have discovered a bizarre phenomenon, namely that Europeans, at least since the aftermath of the Black Death, carry a genetic mutation that protects them against virus attack in a measure superior to others. This is the story in synthesis: “Professor Christopher Duncan and Dr Susan Scott from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, whose research is published in the March edition of Journal of Medical Genetics, 2005, attribute the frequency of the CCR5-Ä32 mutation to its protection from another deadly viral disease, acting over a sustained period in bygone historic times. Some scientists have suggested this disease could have been smallpox or even bubonic plague but bubonic plague is a bacterial disease rather than a virus and is not blocked by the CCR5-Ä32 mutation.
Professor Duncan commented that the fact the CCR5-Ä32 mutation is restricted to Europe suggests that the plagues of the Middle Ages played a big part in raising the frequency of the mutation. These plagues were also confined to Europe, persisted for more than 300 years and had a 100% case mortality.” (Read the whole story here).
This is not the only hint suggesting that the Black Plague was indeed not caused by the Yersinia Pestis – a bacterium – as the traditional wisdom goes. Nature has also published an article raising other interesting questions – in terms of the spread of the contagion, its speed and its extent. And where are all those rat dead bodies we should have expected in such a pandemia? “In big cities like London where thousands died of the Plague only small numbers of rat skeletons have been found, which is “suspicious.” If the Plague were indeed the cause of the Black Death then Europe should be a loaded with old rat bones. A virus spread through person-to-person contact would not have left a by-product of rat bones.”
I’ve been passionate about the Black Death since I was a student of Modern History many years ago, and a book that seriously discusses this hypothesis is a TBR straight away. This is the novel’s blurb: “John Motram, a cell biologist at Newcastle University, firmly believes that Black Death was not caused by bubonic plague but by an unknown virus. He is excited when Oxford University informs him that there might be preserved bodies of Black Death victims hidden under Dryburgh Abbey. Motram launches an excavation but it comes to a disastrous end when he apparently loses his mind after entering the secret tomb. Dr Steven Dunbar is sent to investigate – fearing that a new killer virus has been let loose.”
As it often happens in good books, there are at least two or three plots that you have to follow, and this one is no exception. I have to say that, while I could tell since page three what the main one was about – incidentally, not about the Black Death at all – this is only because I know enough about bacteria and viruses to catch nuances, not because it was trivial. Also, it didn’t take anything out of the interest of the book, well written and compelling by any standard. If I have any criticism to raise is about the ending, which seemed a bit rushed and that could have lingered on a bit more. But this is a common feature of this kind of novels in general, and medical ones don’t make exception.
So yes, if you were a fan of Crichton and appreciate rigorously researched thrillers, Ken McClure is one you want to read – the whole Dunbar series and the others. Here’s the author’s website – and for me, ahead to the next one!