Joshua Spanogle's debut novel will have readers compulsively washing their hands for months. A medical student at Stanford, Spanogle knows his subject, and the result is a chillingly realistic medical thriller with real urgency.

Isolation Ward opens as a mysterious outbreak of hemorrhagic fever strikes a run-down hospital in a decaying Baltimore neighborhood. The early symptoms of the viral infection resemble a bad case of the flu but quickly escalate to something much more horrific and an alarming percentage of those infected are dead within weeks. Dr. Nathaniel McCormick, a hard-charging medical detective from the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control, is called in to investigate. What he uncovers is shocking: all those inflicted with the sickness are mentally handicapped residents from group homes in the area, and all have sexual links with another group home resident, an alleged rapist named Douglas Buchanan. McCormick's investigatory style, which can best be described as antagonistic, leads him to some surprising clues, but his complete lack of couth gets him pulled from the front lines just as possible leads start surfacing. After being shipped off to California to follow up on a minor loose end, McCormick finds himself right in the middle of a jaw-dropping plot that could save millions of lives and destroy even more.

Readers will have a hard time putting down this incredibly fast-paced novel and will be disturbed by its far-reaching implications, but a minor flaw can be found in its protagonist, the ill-tempered and overly sarcastic McCormick. An unpleasant blend of loud-mouthed brat and insensitive know-it-all, the headstrong character is not always an easy one for readers to identify with. That small criticism aside, Isolation Ward is definitely a medical thriller worth reading. Paul Goat Allen is a freelance editor and writer in Camillus, New York.

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