THE RED LOTUS by Chris Bohjalian

Sunset at Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island in Vietnam

(Northern Vietnam)

Alexis Remnick met Austin Harper in her Emergency Room in a Manhattan hospital after he had been brought in with a gunshot wound in his bicep.  She cleaned the wound, stitched him up as a result their relationship began.  Alexis had been an ER doctor for three years in a NYC hospital but had never met Austin who was a development officer at the same hospital.  It was an environment in which she thrived as the adrenaline rush of the ER allowed her to overcome her own anxiety and depression that plagued her since she was a teenager when she engaged in “cutting.”  In the ER, her public person was transformed, and she became an expert doctor, while Austin was a bicycle junkie who had a past that Alexis, despite dating him for seven months, was unaware of.

This is how Chris Bohjalian, the author of 21 books, many of them New York Times bestsellers, and a number of which have been made into films, begins his latest novel, THE RED LOTUS which may be one of his best efforts to date.  At a time when the United States is being hit with a massive pandemic where predictions of death are currently between 100-240,000 people Bohjalian’s novel is scary to say the least.  Once he introduces the backstory Bohjalian immediately shifts the focus of his novel to Vietnam where Alexis is lying on the beach at a resort in Hoi An where she and Austin had traveled so Austin could pay homage to his father who was wounded and his uncle who had died in the Vietnam War.  Austin had left the bike touring group to travel a seventy-mile route to pay his respects and disappears.  Alexis’ texts and calls go unanswered as Austin has been kidnapped during his ride but left behind a lemon-yellow Psych energy gel and two chocolate flavored packets on the trail which Alexis and the group leaders came across as they searched for him to no avail.

Bohjalian writes with an intensity that produces an atmosphere that  seems as if could be cut with a knife.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the novel is that rats play such a significant role.  Bohjalian is very careful by drawing the reader into what appears to be a love story for about one-third of the plot before he provides hints about where he is taking you.  There are energy gels, cuts on Harper’s fingertips, possible research labs in New York and Vietnam as things begin to come together.  The author has created a complex plot that in many ways deals with our current fears as one of the important characters alludes to the fact that all pandemics begin in some way with rats.  Bohjalian provides more information about rats that most readers would ever want to know.  Interestingly, North Korea becomes part of the larger picture as three people are murdered in a lab in Da Nang, of course involving rat research, while most of us are worried about “Dear Leader” and his quest for nuclear weapons!

The story of course is about human avarice and the mental sickness and greed that drives people.  Douglas Webber, a wealthy freelance travel writer and expert dart aficionado, Sally Gleason, Harper’s boss and Webber’s lover, Dr. Wilbur Sinclair, a viral/bacteria researcher at the hospital where Remnick, Harper, and Gleason are employed, Oscar Bolton, who replaces Harper as Webber’s minion, along with Bao and Giang and other thugs in Vietnam who form the cabal designed to inflict a pandemic and of course make a great deal of money.  One of the most interesting characters is Ken Sarafian, a retired New York City cop in his seventies who is forced to revisit his service in Vietnam and cope with the death of his daughter who recently died of cancer is hired by Remnick to investigate her boyfriend’s death.  His wit and quiet nature belie a though ex-cop who is advised not to take the case but becomes trapped by the decency of its cause.  Remnick can’t seem to let go and her questions and doubts lead her to uncover aspects of Harper’s death that don’t seem to fit which will make her safety very questionable as Webber grows suspicious.

Other important characters include, Capt. Nguyen Quang, a member of the Canh Sat Company Dong (CSCD) of the Da Nang Police Department’s mobile terrorism unit.  By integrating Quang and his cohorts Bohjalian provides insights into how Vietnamese professionals go about solving a criminal case that appears to be a threat to millions.  Toril Bjornstad, an FBI legal attaché stationed in the United States Embassy in Phnom Penn provides support and information to Remnick and Harper’s parents who just cannot accept the fact that their son was a liar and schemer who after a life of getting away with things has gotten himself in too deep.  The key to the novel is Remnick’s use of her ER medical skills that were developed to diagnose patients to uncover how and why Harper died.  As the plot evolves the ending might seem too predictable, until it wasn’t.

The story transverses Vietnam from Da Nang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City to New York and Washington, D.C.  At each stop important twists and turns occur as people keep dying.  Bohjalian is a master of the thriller with a nice human touch at times.   He doles out information very carefully be it about murder, its investigation, and research into rat behavior and the danger they represent.  He develops his characters with expertise and reflects a great deal of compassion for them.  He knows how to draw the reader along to the point where a seeming love story evolves into something much more dangerous and complex.  If you have enjoyed his previous books, his latest effort may top them all.

Map of Vietnam

Political Map of Vietnam

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