The King of Plagues: X-Files Meets 24

Jonathan Maberry, author of "The King of Plagues"

Jonathan Maberry, author of "The King of Plagues"

Give Jonathan Maberry credit: In a thriller world where you can’t think too big, he comes up with the biggest conspiracies, the evilest villains and the hardest, pulse-pounding action readers who think they’ve seen it all.

The King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry book cover In “The King of Plagues,” the third book in the series that began with “Patient Zero” and “The Dragon Factory,” former Baltimore detective Joe Ledger is called back into the Department of Military Sciences ? imagine the SEALs with bleeding-edge technology ? when someone blows up the Royal London Hospital, an attack on the scale of 9/11.

Grieving from the death of his lover in “Factory,” Ledger is also beset with doubts about his ability to continue fighting a war against various terror groups that seemingly will never end. But there’s not much time for reflection, even in a book that’s a supersized 400+ pages by thriller standards.

Maberry keeps multiple narratives and time streams jumping like a kid with ADD. Ledger investigates the bombing, then we’re back seven months before the attack, watching various nefarious plots getting into gear. We’re brought up to speed on the fate of Sebastian Gault, the villain who barely escaped with his life from the end of “Factory,” then we’re at a state prison in Pennsylvania, introduced to Nicodemus, the prisoner who could be Hannibal Lector’s younger cousin in his ability to spook everyone with his oracle-like pronouncements.

It’s hard to talk about the book without delivering spoilers, so I’ll just say this: Maberry seems to have given a lot of thought to how conspiracy groups operate. While their plots and villain are blown up to serve the tropes of the genre, they seem grounded in their very human desires for wealth and power. They’re less ideologically driven, disguising their motives with a propaganda superstructure to give themselves the air of mystery and secret knowledge and cynically manipulating the belief systems of their followers to get them to do their bidding. Given recent news reports about Bin Laden’s love for pornography, French socialists’ need for champagne and $3,000-a-night hotel rooms and Al Gore’s mansion-sized carbon footprint, that sounds about right.

At the same time, Tom Clancy-like, he’ll stop the narrative to drop a bit of technical information. In the middle of hand-to-hand combat with a terrorist cell, he’ll whip out his Rapid Response Folding knife and add that it “has a wicked little 3.375-inch blade that locks into place with a snap of the wrist. What it lacks in weight it makes up for in speed because at only four ounces it moved as fast as my hand.”

On reflection, it seems a little silly — all right, a lot silly — but in the middle of the action, it seems as natural as twisting the knife a quarter-turn in the guy’s throat before yanking it out.

But there’s also a lot to like in “King of Plagues” for readers who like the smaller picture, the subtleties and nuances of character, place and scene. Maberry’s driving narrative focuses laser-like on the action, and leavened by touches of humanity, humor and observation that more literary writers can spend whole books trying to achieve. Some of the good guys are pains in the asses, and some of the bad guys can be motivated by a love as pure as Dante for Beatrice. While he’s no Benjamin Black (John Banville’s nom de thriller), he’s damn better than most writers.

But, then, I’m an easy reader. Tell me a story, use acceptable grammar, make your characters vivid and I’m a happy camper. And if, like Maberry, you quote the Marquis De Sade, Howard Zinn and Benjamin Disraeli, so much the better.

(Confession: I’ve met Maberry at writers conventions and found him an engaging, intelligent speaker with great advice about writing and self-promotion. He signed my (purchased) copy at the latest Pennwriters’ convention, and I have several other books by him on my shelves.)