If ever a thriller rewarded a reader’s patience, it’s James Abel’s “White Plague.” Its slow, heavily plotted first half may discourage you from staying the course, but near the end, when Abel’s characters tackle a daunting mission, you’ll push back bedtime and ask someone else to walk the dog.

The action begins in Anchorage when Marine bioterror expert Joe Rush learns that fire engulfed a sub, the USS Montana, at sea 500 miles north. Of the Montana’s crew of 158, 107 survive; but these men and women suffer burns, bruises and raging fevers brought on by a strange, undiagnosed sickness. From the Pentagon, Rush receives orders to rescue and minister to the sub’s crew. With a polar superstorm precluding an air rescue, he sails into the Arctic on the S.S. Wilmington.

It’s a long journey, for Rush and for the reader. Like the Arctic ice floes that impede the Wilmington, subplots and flashbacks slow the book’s momentum. There is the matter of the Russians, omnipresent in the Arctic and more threatening than ever. “The new Russian government makes old Vladimir Putin look peaceful as Gandhi,” Rush’s boss observes (Abel nudges the time of the action into the near future). In particular, Rush fears the Soviets want to have a look at the American vessel’s advanced weapons and guidance systems.

Then come the Chinese, who surface in a sub, bullying the Wilmington’s crew into a protracted confrontation that threatens to escalate into an international conflict. Add to the mix suspicions among Rush and his crew that there may be a spy on the Wilmington — the Chinese know far too much about what’s happening aboard the American ship.

Prose less than fresh and characters too familiar don’t help. When sub expert Karen Vleska reports for duty on the Wilmington, Rush feels “a shiver of the sort I’d not experienced in a long time, a sensation I’d not thought I could feel again.” The two are standard-issue thriller protagonists: she, the tough, straight-shooting-yet-alluring love interest; he, the hard-bitten Marine wounded by a failed marriage and haunted by a failed mission in Iraq.

"White Plague" by James Abel. (Berkley)

Why, then, should a reader stay with this “race against time,” as one character too obviously sums up the situation?

One reason is that Abel comes up with some set pieces that action fans will savor. A flashback to a confrontation with some monkeys gone berserk in a tunnel in Kuwait, for example, could give the reader the willies.

The author also invests his tale with pertinent themes that make the reader care about — and fear — what’s happening. There are unsettling details about bioterrorism and the effect of global warming on the vast Arctic, its majestic mountains of ice turning to slush. This latter phenomenon plays well into the plot: When Rush’s crew nears the sub, the ice beneath their feet begins to crack, an icy cliffhanger for sure. (James Abel is the pseudonym for an Arctic expert who clearly knows this seascape.)

Most arresting is the notion that the Arctic could become the site of global conflict, with Russia, China and the United States facing off over control of the sea’s northern routes and undersea terrain, all of which are, as a (fictional) report quoted in the story puts it, “crucial to the twenty-first century.”

And so a great deal is at stake as the Americans reach the sub. They face a perilous situation. Should they move men and women who appear to suffer from a deadly, highly contagious virus? Would doing so turn the illness loose? Actions ordered by Washington hamper the rescue effort, ratcheting up tensions even more.

As the action catches fire, Abel’s prose turns leaner and more focused, the pace swifter, and the characters — Rush and Vleska, in particular — more singular and sympathetic. You end up rooting for their survival and even hoping they return for further adventures on land and sea.

Bartell is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.


By James Abel

Berkley. 324 pp. $26.95