In ‘Nano’, his latest medical thriller, Robin Cook tackles nanotechnology
and brings back Pia Grazdani from his last novel, ‘Death Benefit’, writes Sudarshan purohit
Steig Larsson created — or at least popularised — a new kind of heroine when he created Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy.
Salander was someone who was antisocial, unlikeable, had a permanent chip on her shoulder against society, but as the series progressed, we also saw she had her own code of morals. She stood on her own, living by her genius-level wits, relegating sex to a pastime. She was the heart of the series, and one of the reasons it did well.
Robin Cook has, I’ll wager, thought long and hard about the success of those books. Not that there’s any copying happening, but the heroine he has created would certainly get along well with Salander. Pia Grazdani was first introduced in Death Benefit, where, as a medical student, she foiled a plot to take advantage of medical insurance schemes.
Pia is deeply antisocial, had a weird childhood, has a gangster for a father, and is very, very good at her technical passion — which happens to be medical research in this case. She also hates talking to people or making eye contact, preferring to think about her job, and enjoys living by herself.
Unfortunately, Cook has (once more) shoehorned her into a plot and a role that does not do her justice: a by-the-numbers medical thriller very similar to the others that Cook has been writing for a while now.
The events of the book take place when she’s working at a nanotechnology firm that’s researching nanorobots in medicine (and the firm’s called Nano also. Get it? Get it? This is not about the car). The owner of the company is the charismatic Zach Berman, who has a fixation on Pia. This being a Robin Cook novel, strange things are happening at the company, vaguely hinting at a hidden conspiracy.
Pia comes across a Chinese-looking athlete, collapsed on a lonely road, wearing the Nano logo. The man looks almost dead, but when she raises an alarm and escorts the athlete to the hospital, she attracts the attention of her boss at Nano, who shows up, takes the athlete into custody and browbeats the doctors there into forgetting the whole thing.
The athlete mysteriously revives, passes diagnostic tests with flying colours, and leaves with the company goons. In the meantime, Zach Berman is cozying up to Chinese government officials, who sound and behave like gangsters. Hints are dropped about using the top-secret technology to improve athletic performance.
This is where all the character building for Pia begins to break down.
Following the standard Cook script and forgetting that she’s a borderline psychopath, Pia decides that she must find out the horrible truth behind events. Where Salander would have used her technical skills to dig up data on what could be happening, Pia must do juvenile things like give her boss a sleeping pill, break into other labs just because they’re marked off-limits, and chase a blood sample without thinking at all about why people are after it. In the meantime, Berman keeps talking to the Chinese who are getting more threatening as failures keep happening.
Cook tries hard to build up suspense about what is going on, but by the time the big reveal happens, you really don’t care anymore. And the athletic performance angle turns out to be exactly as hinted, but unimportant in the larger scheme of things.
Role of emotions
More than thrills and chills, what makes any story good is the interactions between the characters. Larsson painted believable jealousies and concerns. Cook, however, makes almost no effort here. Every guy who meets Pia falls head-over-heels in lust with her, which she hates (but she does nothing to reduce her sex appeal). All the women hate her.
The guy who plays the sidekick role is conveniently gay, so there is no sexual tension between them. Pia’s Albanian gangster father is estranged, yes, but he comes in as a deus ex machina to help out when the canvas expands and Pia is transported to Europe.
There is one more groan-inducing parallel here with the Salander stories — this books ends (similar to the second book there) with Pia seemingly defeated and missing. Let that be a warning for whoever intends to pick this up, hoping for a simple read and wrap-up like the Robin Cook books of yore.
Special mention must be made of the numerous typos that show up on every other page. The proofreading has been especially bad here.
Strictly recommended only for (a) beginning readers who have just started reading thrillers but can’t digest complex material yet, or (b) readers of Indian thriller fiction who want to read ‘phoren’ thriller writers. Though they’d be better served by one of the earlier books, such as Coma, or even Harmful Intent.