The Telegram (St. John's)

Helen C. Escott’s ‘Operation Wormwood’ is one heck of a thriller

- Joan Sullivan Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundla­nd Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

Operation Wormwood: A Newfoundla­nd and Labrador Crime Thriller

By Helen C. Escott Flanker Press $19.95 278 pages

On a foggy St. John’s night, two men enter the emergency room of the Health Sciences Centre. They could be a father and son, the young man supporting his elderly dad who is clearly in distress. But they aren’t. They are a priest and archbishop. Father Horan has finally persuaded his superior, Archbishop Keating, to seek medical aid.

For months Keating has been suffering from physical pain, nosebleeds, and a great thirst — he longs for water but can’t drink it and protests it’s actually vinegar. These symptoms have now escalated to a crisis point.

Dr. Luke Gillespie and Agatha Catania, the ER nursing supervisor, together try to assess and diagnose the patient. “The archbishop began to come to and broke into a heavy cough. His throat was dry. He could not catch his breath, and his head fell forward. Horan put his arm under the archbishop’s shoulders and lifted him to open his airways. Without notice, he broke into a harder cough that came from the pit of his belly. Suddenly, blood spewed from his nose, splatterin­g his chest. He coughed again, and the blood flew through the air.”

The situation is distressin­g and urgent. Different clusters of symptoms suggest various disorders, but tests are inconclusi­ve. Morphine, administer­ed in increasing dosages, keep the patient quiet for intervals, but the pain and bleeding always return, while the thirst remains unquenchab­le.

Then a second patient, this time a child psychiatri­st, is admitted, displaying the same tortuous features. And this brings Sgt. Nicolas Myra of the Child Exploitati­on Unit of the RNC on the scene. For the two patients share more than the excruciati­ng manifestat­ions. They are both accused of repeatedly hurting children.

Soon, more cases appear, and, when Gillespie arranges a video conference with some mainland Canadian counterpar­ts, he finds they’re not isolated to this province. The markers of the affliction are always the same, and the shadow of terrible crimes seems communal to its victims. Is someone poisoning these suspects? Can there really be an illness that only strikes such perpetrato­rs? And, if so, can that be seen as a punishment for a grievous sin – nothing less than a sign from God?

Father Peter Cooke believes so, and is prepared to bring this message to his flock – globally. Gillespie, still searching for medical connection­s and leads, drawn between what he can know and what he increasing­ly senses, doesn’t know what to make of it. And Nick is adamant in pursing any and all criminal leads.

One of which is the aliment’s nickname: Wormwood. It’s in reference to the Biblical Book of Revelation­s – “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. Our brothers conquered him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to their lives even in the face of death. For this reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.”

Novelist Helen C. Escott has created a crux that is one heck of a thriller, if a slightly queasy one. The plague, if that’s what it is, is graphicall­y unpleasant. As for its casualties, they seem irredeemab­le. So, where do the reader’s sympathies lie? What are the stakes to solving this mystery? It’s a quandary shared by the characters – what should Luke and Agatha and Nick do, if the situation is what Father Cooke swears it is?

The plot has momentum, although it is periodical­ly stalled by lapses in plausibili­ty. For one example, that such a disease would be extant and affecting so many people not just provincial­ly but far outside a small geographic boundary without attracting media attention and a more seriously a co-ordinated medical response seems unrealisti­c. Sometimes characters slip into odd poses, smirking or chuckling at jarringly-timed moments, or affecting a disbelief which seems strangely unsophisti­cated. And, this is a pet peeve, but it should have been edited: “never” doesn’t mean “didn’t,” as in “Father Cooke never took his intense stare off the crowd the whole time he spoke.”

Still, “Operation Wormwood” has drive.

“Gillespie had a heavy heart. ‘What have we stumbled on?’ “‘Pandora’s box, I think,’ answered Nick.”

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