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Patient Zero: A Joe Ledger Novel by Jonathan Maberry
Review by Ernest Lilley
St. Martin's Griffin Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312382858
Date: 03 March 2009 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

It's Homeland Security meets Dawn of the Dead and the body count just keeps going up and up...but the terrorists are already dead so it's a pain in the ass to have to keep killing them. Jack Bauer, take the day off...Joe Ledger's here to make sure being dead doesn't catch on...

Patient Zero starts out with an inter-agency raid on a terrorist cell in a Baltimore Warehouse. Our boy is Detective Joe Ledger, and he's the one with the shotgun, handgun, and a whole lot of martial arts moves. The takedown goes more or less as planned, though with a bit more flying lead than might be hoped for, except for one small detail. Out of a big blue box steps your basic zombie terrorist - not actually shambling, but yes, drooling a bit and out for living flesh. Not that Joe (or anyone else) knows what the whackjob from the box was on about...and since he went down in a hail of bullets (Joe's) it wasn't like he was able to tell them. Of course, you can't keep a good ghoul down, and the agents that got to ride with him to the hospital...well, that would be telling.

Basically, you've got the classic extra dark three letter agency scenario here, with a touch of super-science. Smart, contemporary super-science, and in this case a weaponized prion plague that turns humans in to "walkers". Zombie just doesn't have the political correctness for it.

We actually pick up the story while Joe is catching up on decompressing after the raid--taking statistical data on the incidence of thong bikinis at the shore. He's been a better than average detective, and he's waiting out the time before he heads up to Quantico to train for an FBI position, but that all changes when a trio of FBI guys pick him up for a meeting he's been requested to attend. They're good at what they do, though Joe's pretty sure he's just a little better, and though he doesn't like what amounts to a government sanctioned kidnapping, he goes along. For the moment, anyway.

At the other end of the ride he meets the head of the darker than chocolate agency, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS) an enigmatic Mr. Church, whose only vice seems to be the plate of cookies that follows him around. He also meets the "disturbingly attractive" Major Grace Courtland, on loan from the Brits, and he gets to re-meet an old friend - the terrorist he'd shot dead in the raid. Not so dead now, though as dead as most zombies are, but faster (if no smarter) than the ones from the movies.

DMS is a little short handed, due to a little incident on the way to a hospital, and they're considering Joe for their team. Mr. Church has seen the tapes of the events in the warehouse because from the slow-mo replay he's been wearing out, it appears that they're kindred spirits. You know, killing machines without a whit of hesitation and lots of nasty tricks up their sleeves. And best of all, Joe's alone in the world, having lost everyone he cares about over time.

So, Joe takes Church's entrance exam, gets briefed on the zombie threat, spars a bit with the frosty Major and goes back to his beach to ruminate on the really bad news he's just gotten. If they need him, they'll let him know.

Since any sensible person would pretend it had never happened, Joe immediately digs into the existence of the DMS and comes up blank. Since that's not enough flag waving for our hero, he drags his best friend Rudy, who's also a police shrink out to the middle of nowhere to tell him all about it. Why are we not surprised when Rudy turns up missing?

Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil the entire story...you get to read it for yourself. If you're at all inclined toward mil-sf, 911-fic (did I just coin a term?), or men in black tales, you'll love this one. Fast paced? This story unwinds at a speed that can only be described as blurring. Body count? Oh baby...but the dead ones don't count, do they? The most interesting part of the job is when you've got a room full of people who've just been infected pleading for help...just before they lunge for you with snapping jaws. Is the fate of the free world on the line? What? Just because there's danger a zombie pandemic is about to be released on US soil? Does money, sex, and jhad make for strange bedfellows? Well, duh.

Good thing that they brought along Rudy, because everyone's going to need some serious counseling before this is over.

The archetype for this story is Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951) though Mr. Church is less cerebral than the Old Man was there, and though the alien parasites in The Puppet Masters spread like a virus, there was hope for their hosts if you could only kill the slugs. For the walkers, there's no going back. The trail of tales that feature a secret government agency devoted to rooting out science related evil has since then been fully fleshed out on TV as well as in SF literature, from F(ringe) to X(-files), so you might ask if we need one more? Actually, I'll vote yes on this one.

The usual crew of hot male action hero, hot female action hero with a chip on her shoulder, enigmatic old man, and folksy red shirts is augmented by Rudy, the police shrink, who delivers insights we don't usually get about the Jack Bauers of the world. Rudy starts out with a civilian's distaste for the heavy handed anti-terrorist capers of the government, and has to come to grips with the need for it, though that's less interesting than watching him deal with combat stress in himself and others.

If they survive to the end of the book, it's a pretty sure bet that Joe and his friends at the DMS will be back to save the world again. Since a lot of the fun in these things comes from watching the setup unfold, we'll have to wait and see if Maberry can keep up the pace...but I'm betting he can.

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