Chris Holm’s debut on the mystery scene back in 2012 was auspicious—at least to this crime-fiction lover. The first book of Holm’s “Collector” series, Dead Harvest, came out in a beautifully designed paperback from Angry Robot. An homage to classic pulp fiction (in this case, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest), Dead Harvest was a fun, compulsively readable urban fantasy. It had noir style and personality to spare, despite the fantastical plot. Holm would follow it up with two more books to complete the trilogy: 2012’s The Wrong Goodbye (honoring Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye) and 2013’s The Big Reap (honoring Chandler’s The Big Sleep). All three books were wrapped in Angry Robot’s fine cover art, and they occupy a space of honor on my shelves. This amazing debut trilogy rightly catapulted Holm into the big-time, and in 2015 he released the hardcover The Killing Kind with a big push from his new publisher Mulholland Books. The book got a lot of buzz for its premise: a hit man who targets only other hitmen. It was a more traditional crime story, shedding the supernatural elements of his “Collector” series. A second hardcover, 2016’s Red Right Hand, continued the adventures of hit man Michael Hendricks, delivering more edge-of-the seat crime fiction.
At some point during the past six years, Holm’s readers might have expected the third volume in the Hendricks trilogy—but, you know, things happen.
Like kakistocracies and global pandemics.
Holm takes a significant detour with his new hardcover, Child Zero, a near-future dystopian thriller that zeroes in on the aftermath of a bioterrorism attack on New York City that has left the bulk of the population dead. Previously treatable infections such as meningitis and tuberculosis have suddenly become fatal propositions. In this scenario—which eerily amps up the COVID-19 surreality of the past couple years—our traditional methods of dealing with illness (such as antibiotics) have become ineffective, and both the public and the medical establishment are flailing for ways to survive. As a result, panic has set in, and the foundations of normal life have crumbled. New York City has essentially become a police state. Enter Detective Jake Gibson, himself hobbled by the realities of the world, having already lost a wife and now watching his daughter Zoe succumb gradually to a high fever that might kill her. He’s called to the scene of a mass murder in what was once known as Central Park but is now a sprawling, militarized quarantine zone called Park City, which eventually leads him to discover something that could change the trajectory of history—and perhaps save his daughter.
What elevates the novel are its urgent pacing and its firm grasp of multiple viewpoints, two narrative elements that work hand-in-hand here. When a thriller writer uses multiple points of view effectively, those contrasting voices can inject adrenaline into a story, providing a point-counterpoint surge to an already propulsive pace. In Child Zero, we get not only the perspective of Gibson but also that of his partner on the force, Amy, adding a strong female perspective; Mateo Rivas, a young mysterious boy who has escaped from Park City and is on the run through the merciless city; Hannah Lang, caretaker of young Zoe and beleaguered surgeon at the end of her ropes at a downtown hospital; as well as all manner of villains who aim to protect the status quo of power over the helpless. Experiencing the story from all angles like this—getting multiple viewpoints on a single “event”—elevates Child Zero from what might have been a rather by-the-numbers edge-of-the-seater.
Another reason Child Zero stands apart is that Holm himself has experience as a molecular biologist, lending an air of believability to the proceedings. He describes the so-called Harbinger virus in such a way that it feels all too real in this age of heightened scientific awareness about viruses and their global effects. Holm’s bacteriological asides are kept expertly succinct and to the point—perfectly paced within the narrative to allow for constant readability. And it’s not only the science that feels right, but also the political and societal upheaval surrounding things like mask mandates and quarantines and vaccine directives. Having gone through the past two years, we can empathize with a culture that simply doesn’t know how to cope with a sudden biological disaster, pitting brother against brother when all we’re all trying to do is merely survive. All we can do is take it day by day, and yet there are a lot of people out there who would rather resort to anger, violence, and even murder. And of course the age-old chasm between the disadvantaged and the ultra-advantaged, untouchable elite comes into sharp relief.
There are some kick-ass action sequences in Child Zero, and they seem to bleed one into the other, maintaining a constant state of suspense. Feeling tailor-made for the big screen (that’s inevitable, right?), the book contains scenes that remind this reviewer of a key sequence in Spielberg’s Minority Report, or even some of the best scenes in Soderbergh’s Contagion. There’s a palpable tension running through this novel that should translate very well to a screenplay. As for literary comparisons, Holm finds himself in the exalted company of Michael Crichton or Richard Preston.
Child Zero is a fascinating detour for an author who has obviously been strongly influenced by current global events. It remains to be seen whether the reading public will be interested in “re-living” the awfulness of 2020-2021 in the form of this often disturbing allegory. Like any great dystopian novel, Child Zero serves as both a thrilling beach read and a dire warning about what could be. I’m curious how the public will react to this one, but in my case, the horrors of this book feel more like destiny than nightmare scenario.
At least Child Zero ends on a note of hope. Or does it?