Frank G(ill) Slaughter Rex Lardner - Essay

Rex Lardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Days after some puzzling human deaths at sea, rats scurry down the gangway of an ancient tramp steamer as it docks in Manhattan. The captain, victim of a disease contracted from deckhands illegally signed on in West Africa, visits his blowsy girl friend in her apartment. The rats over-run a sleeping drunk. The captain kisses his female friend—who happens to come into contact with hundreds as a cafeteria cashier. Thus does Frank G. Slaughter, busiest medical author of the day, chronicler of Biblical, historical, romantic and military-surgical triumphs, set the scene for his latest novel ["Epidemic!"].

The time is 1965. The events take place during a frantic seven days in Manhattan when immunologists, bacteriologists, police and other city agencies fight a unique, frighteningly contagious and anachronistic enemy—plague….

"Epidemic!" is not only an account of how surgeon Bob Trent and immunologist Eric Stowe doggedly meet the exacting demands of their profession; it is also a spy story and a juvenile-gang story. Behind the sabotage is an unknown leader, ordering the sanitation-union boss to keep his men out during the emergency and directing the destructive acts of a gang called the Royal Dukes. The obstacles to be overcome are heroic, but medical-supply centers and emergency wards are shortly set up, and detectives and doctors close in on their respective foes.

While the dozen or so characters in the novel are never very thoroughly explored, the sequence of events does allow Dr. Slaughter to delve into areas where he feels most at home. The book is a kind of eminently readable medical text, in which the author guides us through a brain operation, an autopsy, heart repair, and a visceral search to find a bullet. He also shows how the source of an epidemic is traced and describes the classic symptoms of the "Black Death"—delirium, suicidal impulses, and the urge to run naked in the streets. If we ever do have a siege of the disease, it is to be hoped that the city administration and medical personnel will be as alert, wise, and selfless as they are in this fast-paced tale.

Rex Lardner, "Black Death Updated," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1961, p. 49.