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Review: Dust Up, by Jon McGoran

Jon McGoran’s Dust Up is an eco-thriller focused on an issue that couldn’t be more relevant to the world today – the planet Earth’s food supply.  Who controls this supply and what exactly are the ingredients going into it?  Or is ingredients too kind a word?  What used to be known simply as corn, for example, now comes in genetically modified forms. Is this food healthy?  What are the risks attached to having a diet derived from genetically modified organisms?  Much of the world is poor and the world’s population keeps growing, so isn’t the first priority to provide enough food for the human race to eat?  Maybe, but if so, in such a specialized area, who controls the genetic engineering that’s done, what are those companies’ agendas, and how does the profit motive, ultra-rich CEO’s competing for market share, complicate things?  This is food, after all, a basic human necessity, but as people have become distant from the source of the food that winds up on their tables, a whole realm of possibility for wrongdoing has arisen.

Dust Up begins when a man comes knocking one night at the door of the house belonging to Philadelphia police detective Doyle Carrick. The detective has barely put on his pants and grabbed his revolver when gunfire erupts.  He and his wife find that a man has been fatally shot on their doorstep, and it turns out that neither of them knows the man.  He’s a total stranger named Ronald Hartwell.  Enter the Philadelphia police department to investigate and the case is given to Detective Mike Warren, a guy Carrick has no respect for and who, we learn, deserves no respect.  He is a dense, arrogant officer, all to ready to jump at the obvious to solve a case.  In this instance, the obvious is the victim’s wife, Miriam Hartwell, who Carrick saw driving away from his house just after Ronald got shot.  While Warren tries to wrap up his case, convinced the killing was the result of a domestic dispute, Carrick finds out that both Hartwells worked for a biotech firm.  He wonders whether this case has bigger implications than a husband and wife at odds.  As a matter of fact, it does, and when a desperate Miriam, hiding in a Philadelphia hotel, contacts Carrick, he finds out what is actually going on.  Because of his past experience taking on international biotech corporations (in McGoran’s novels Drift and Deadout), the Hartwells were coming to Carrick to blow the lid off something they’d discovered about the company that employed them.   That somebody killed Ronald before he could talk tells Carrick that their employer, or some entity, has huge secrets to hide, and being the irrepressible and less than straight arrow cop that he is, Carrick ignores police department protocol and embarks on his own investigation.  His goals: to help an endangered Miriam out of her predicament, to solve her husband’s murder, and to respond to what he discovers is a corporate conspiracy involving political interference in Haiti, contaminated food, and the deaths of hundreds of Haitian villagers.  There is a plot afoot that could endanger millions of the world’s people. Yes, we are definitely in international thriller territory in Dust Up, with all the paranoia and dire stakes that entails, and if the author can’t pull off every detail of what’s presented at least halfway plausibly, this sort of novel will collapse.

The good word about Dust Up is that it does not collapse.  Quite the opposite: it’s a fast engaging thriller from start to finish.  And these words, I should say, if I’m going to be honest, are coming from a person who isn’t even a big fan of these kinds of novels.  I rarely read big, splashy thriller novels and I can count the number of eco-thrillers I’ve read on one hand.  What I liked here, however, is the sense of humor Jon McGoran brings to the proceedings; his Doyle Carrick, who narrates the story, is a sharp-tongued wise-ass it’s hard not to like.  Because he’s a cop, he has skills and training most people do not have, but he’s no James Bond type super agent either.  He’s essentially an ordinary guy caught up in an extraordinary situation.  You relate to him, you enjoy his jokes.  Along with the quips and sarcasm, though, is an underlying sense of sobriety.  You never lose sight of the real world issues in play.  The vulnerability of the world’s food supply is a genuine concern.  McGoran gives us wild chases and glib banter, but he does not let us forget the ever present dangers regular people face because of corporate greed and political opportunism.  He’s done his research on biotech companies and genetically modified foods, and he blends his research into his storyline seamlessly. When he moves the action to Haiti, where a lot of the book takes place, he keeps things lucid and down to earth.  There is no exoticism in this novel and the Haitian characters aren’t merely victims or cardboard supporting players. Doyle Carrick comes across as a real person, Miriam Hartwell does, and so do the Haitians portrayed.  In the end, it’s the Haitians along with Doyle who resolve things, and it’s the Haitians who will have to carry on the work that has a hope of improving their island and the lives of the country’s people.

I had fun reading Dust Up, and it gave me a chill. I closed the book asking myself, “Can I trust what I’m eating? What genetic modifications went into the veggies I put in my salad?”

Entertainment and serious thoughts. You can’t take much more away from a thriller than that.

Reviewed by Scott Adlerberg