Ken Follett is an accomplished author of popular suspense, and he seems able to make anything interesting. Almost always a blessing, this talent becomes a bit dizzying when a book is as overfull of characters and plotlines as Whiteout. At one point, for example, readers encounter the adolescent Ned, a minor character attracted to Sophie. After only two pages, Follett manages to raise reader sympathy for Ned’s unrequited love with a package of well drawn details (“he had thought about her every day for four months”) some self-effacing irony (“He was used to difficult women--his mother was one”), and a nice turn of phrase (“There was something about Sophie that stabbed him in the heart”). You admire the finesse even as you reel from sorting out the clusters of characters and tangle of plotting.

The premise of Whiteout concerns the risky work at a Scottish medical research firm. A lab worker dies at his home from exposure to a lethal virus, and security chief Toni Gallo works to cope with the unfolding crisis. One complication comes from Toni’s ex-husband, a cop who has leaked information about the incident to a newsman with his own romantic designs on Toni. She, however, is attracted to sixty-ish Stanley Oxenford, the head of the medical firm, whose extended family is gathering at his home for Christmas. More complications come from the financial and romantic schemes of Stanley’s clan, especially his son Kit, whose gambling debts motivate him to band with thugs from London bent on breaching Stanley’s lab. The blizzard moving in creates a pressure cooker (chapters are marked by time, each fifteen- to-sixty minutes after the preceding one).

It takes almost half of the book to get the characters, the rivalries, and the weather all poised for the suspense that readers of Follett expect, a sluggish and protracted exposition by any yardstick. Intermittently interesting, Whiteout falls below the level set by most Follett novels.