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Oath of Office by Michael Palmer

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Oath of Office by Michael Palmer is what proves to be a highly enjoyable medical and/or political thriller. Thematically, we’re in the realm of Frankenfood, i.e. food intended for human consumption that combines genes from different sources to enable farmers to grow crops with fewer pests or less damage from weeds. At this point I should disclose my prejudice. Even during the time of food rationing after WWII, food tasted better than it does today. When we finally got back to unrestricted eating, it’s been singularly depressing to experience the slow erosion of taste. Take bacon as an example. In the good old days when it came from a pig slaughtered on one of the local farms, you could taste the meat. Then they started pumping it full of brine which washed most of the taste out of it. Today, with pigs stuffed full of hormones to make them fat and antibiotics to stop them from dying in intensive farms, the meat is nothing like the original stuff we wolfed down sixty and more years ago. Now it’s just bland and, because of the added drugs, not good for us. It’s the same with crops and all the foods made with them. Were it not for chemical enhancers, you often would not know what you were supposed to be eating. Now the multinationals want us to start eating genetically modified foods for their profit. Well, for me, this puts the cherry on the cake celebrating the death of food (or the deaths of humans after eating it, except government regulators don’t exactly look for evidence of the causes of death by holding routine autopsies). Frankly, I’m glad I’m old and will soon be dead. It saves me having to worry about the long-term dangers of exposure to all this manufactured food.

Thus, as a paranoid old guy and, worse, a European, it does my heart good to read a book like this. American author Michael Palmer speculates on what could go wrong without proper testing if contaminated food gets into the human food chain. Needless to say, this takes us beyond the more conventional allergic responses. Rather in the same way the “fish tomato” scientists borrowed a gene from the winter flounder and inserted it into a tomato to help us consumers breathe in cold water, this has us with a rather more creepy transgenic insertion and its disconcerting effects coming soon to a plate near yours.

Michael Palmer showing off his rugged good looks next to a cliff face

Putting this future application of current technology to one side, Oath of Office starts with a small-town doctor inexplicably shooting dead his partner and staff. This is intended to shock. The homicidal nuttiness of respected authority figures is always disconcerting. There’s then a slight slowing as our medical hero demonstrates his abilities with patients. I was faintly worried by the choice of an Asian doctor to stereotype as lacking social skills and failing to follow expected medical protocols for ICU treatment. He’s described as a “. . .copper-skinned man—probably from India.” Given the increasing racial diversity in America, this could easily be an individual from a second- or third-generation immigrant family. I don’t believe it would have occurred to the author to write, “. . .a pale-skinned guy—probably from Iceland.” or “. . .a dark man—probably from Harlem.” Doctors are doctors. It would have avoided the suggestion of racism if a hospital doctor of unspecified race and color had been acting strangely. At least we can be grateful Anthar Prichap is not obviously a Moslem name. As you will gather from the title, the second strand of the narrative involves the First Lady and her relationship with POTUS. She and her security guard have to do a little investigating when she’s approached by a mystery man with allegations the Secretary of Agriculture has been framed on charges of sex with a minor.

Once we get into the plot it slowly builds up pace and, by the time we get near the end, it’s charging along like a thriller on steroids as fists fly and bullets do their thing. Fortunately, our hero as doctor is early shown to be a boxer, working out in a gym with an ex-contender. This gives him excellent fighting skills when the plot requires him to defend himself. Such credibility is essential if you’re going to run with a crowd of folk who will stop at nothing to get their way. By the time we’re finished, the scale of the activity is beyond the usual SWAT team. In local terms, it’s like someone declared war.

So there we have it. Oath of Office starts by establishing its hero as a doctor and then expands to show him literally and metaphorically coming through the fire with the right answers on problems in the human food chain. In a parallel investigation, the First Lady also comes up trumps in her investigation with Secret Service support. It’s very good as a medical thriller with political overtones and, if you want to have your prejudices on Frankenfoods confirmed, this is the book for you to curl up with on a dark night as the hour strikes midnight and the floor boards creak with a threat of unexpected movement in the house (which doesn’t need to be white for these purposes).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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