PLUM ISLAND
By Nelson DeMille
Warner. 528 pp. $25

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Wisecracking All the Way

By John Katzenbach
Sunday, June 8, 1997

Plum Island is a small bit of the earth just off the Long Island shore where anthrax and ebola and mad cow disease, among other less familiar but decidedly terrifying sicknesses, are studied by government scientists. It lends its name to the title of mega-bestselling author Nelson DeMille's latest novel. Reading Plum Island is not as deadly as contracting one of these diseases.

This is fortunate.

DeMille's novel, his ninth in a string of thrillers, is narrated by a wisecracking New York homicide detective, convalescing from a trio of bullet wounds at a relative's house on Long Island. Actually, to say that Det. John Corey is a wisecracker is a vast understatement. He seems physically incapable of making any comment that is not laced with superficial sarcasm. Unarmed and facing the barrel of a killer's gun, half-drowned and beaten bloody by fighting a small boat through a hurricane's waves, fearing that he may be breathing in fatal fumes from escaping doomsday viruses, shivering cold and with hardly a chance left to escape death, he still has a smarmy smart comment or two to make.

Plum Island begins when Corey is asked by an old police friend to help out in the investigation of the brutal assassination of two Plum Island research scientists. Was the couple murdered because of the knowledge they'd acquired about the diseases and their possible cures? Or was there some other motive? DeMille weaves together several possible scenarios for the indefatigable, sexually charged, and unrelentingly clever detective. The animal disease research -- and the threats that it poses to humans -- is but one avenue that the plucky detective, along with an obligatory attractive local policewoman, inspects. Before too long, DeMille has also worked into the plot Long Island's pirate treasure mythology, and a short course on wine-making.

Suffice it to say that the scientists' murders have something to do with all these elements. It is up to the sexy, humorous detective to sort it all out. This, as one might imagine, he does, although along the way he jeopardizes his own career, as well as those of his friends, not to mention his life. As befits a suspense novel, there are several bad guys around to match wits with Corey. And when things get convoluted enough, author DeMille kills off some of the secondary characters and brings Hurricane Jasper rushing up the Eastern seaboard, delivering it as if on cue, in time for the final confrontations.

Plum Island concocts all the traditional elements of the big bestseller in a literary test tube, and then trots them out in calculated fashion. It is likely that it will be a big summer read because it is breezy, long but lightweight, not particularly challenging, occasionally clever, and absolutely formulaic. But to his credit, the author does have the formula down cold. That there is nothing surprising or unpredictable or creative in the novel is probably a virtue. Plum Island is designed to be an entertainment, a diversion, in the same way that a sitcom or a movie-of-the-week is. Readers searching for something other than a page-turner will probably be looking elsewhere.

What Plum Island promises, it delivers: a lengthy but fast-paced bit of literary candy, some hours spent in pursuit of an incredibly far-fetched tale that hustles the reader past any inconsistencies, cardboard characters or flimsy descriptions that might be lurking around the pages.

Women readers may have some problems with the main character, a self-described chauvinist and misogynist. Not a very politically correct type is John Corey. This, however, may not be a criticism as much as an observation.

John Katzenbach is the author of five novels and one work of nonfiction. His sixth thriller, "State of Mind," is scheduled for August publication.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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