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Updated: October 5, 2013 20:36 IST

Thriller with a stutter

Sankar Radhakrishnan
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Breath of Death by Saad Shafqat.
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Breath of Death by Saad Shafqat.

A medical potboiler with international ambitions could have been better paced.

Saad Shafqat’s Breath of Death is quite the ‘thriller from Pakistan’ it’s positioned as. Dr. Asad Mirza, a talented young neurologist, and Nadia Khan, an eager medical student, encounter a mysterious neurological illness in the wards of a Karachi teaching hospital. While attempting to solve the puzzle of this strange infection, the two walk right into the middle of a bio-terrorism plot against the U.S.

Both Karachi and the intricacies of the human brain are familiar territory to Shafqat, a neurologist who lives in the city. And this knowledge shows. He writes with authority and confidence about things that happen in the hospital and in the city.

The writing, though, is often jerky, with abrupt transitions. Yet, it’s also very descriptive and evocative, painting portraits of people and places. Shafqat has an eye for detail, and the images he builds are powerful. Almost all the characters seem very real. Even the ‘bad guys’ like Hamza Kadri, the scientist who designs the bio-weapon, and Malik Feysal, the zealous operative of the terrorist ‘Network’, are portrayed as multi-layered beings.

Shafqat also deftly captures the love-hate relationship that many people in Pakistan — and South Asia perhaps — seem to have with the U.S. An equation that’s equal parts fascination and frustration. Even Asad Mirza, the book’s principal protagonist, who’s studied and worked in the U.S., is not completely free of this sentiment. Yet, Asad’s disquiet with certain aspects of U.S. policy does not prevent him from doing the right thing.

My one big grouse with Breath of Death is with the plot’s pace. Like many soap operas on television, it chugs along sedately and then, before you know it, it’s all over. In fact, the last few chapters didn’t quite work for me; at least not in the way the early chapters did. For one, I found the whole sub-plot built around Nadia’s trip to the U.S. to intern at a lab in Boston almost contrived. This thread doesn’t quite add to the story except, perhaps, to bolster the thesis about Pakistani disquiet with “America’s overreach around the world.”

Also puzzling is a lack of attention to detail that creeps in towards the end. A telling example is how Nadia carries a biological sample in her backpack when she travels to the U.S. She’s got no clearance from the U.S. authorities to do this and seems surprised when U.S. customs confiscates the specimen.

It is hard to imagine how Asad and Nadia’s hosts in the U.S., both prominent medical researchers, thought she could simply enter the country with a biological specimen in a flask of formalin.

I also wish that Shafqat had given a bit more detail about how the virus designed by Kadri worked. I know the plot hinges on deploying an aerosol-based delivery system. But what is not clear is just how the virus was tested in Karachi. For instance, how were the test subjects alone infected by the virus, while the people around them were untouched by the ‘breath of death’.

Despite these bumps, Breath of Death was an interesting and intriguing tale told rather well.

Breath of Death; Saad Shafqat, Chlorophyll/Wisdom Tree, Rs.245.

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