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On the blog: Dr. Katrina Farrell on The Health of Strangers

Today we're delighted to have Dr. Katrina Farrell on the Sandstone blog, sharing her thoughts as a medical professional on Lesley Kelly's newest Health of Strangers thriller. Dr. Farrell is a Consultant Haematologist in NHS Forth Valley and has a PhD from the University of Glasgow.

“The virus. A deadly disease that’s on the rise.”

You’d be mistaken for thinking this was current affairs. Lesley Kelly’s “Health of Strangers” series might yet turn out to be one of the most unnervingly prescient works of near-future fiction in recent years. Set in a near-present day Edinburgh, the books follow the exploits of the Health Enforcement Team (HET), a government agency tasked with tracking down people who don’t turn up for their health check. A pandemic flu has swept the world in waves, killing a million in the UK. Non-immune people must have regular examinations. The “defaulters” become the work of the HET. When it transpires that some of the defaulters have more sinister reasons for failing to appear, the HET are drawn in to a murky world of seedy criminals, paranoid activists and corrupt bureaucracies.

I’ve been a fan of this series and eagerly bought the first three books as they were published, so was delighted that Sandstone Press sent me a review copy of the latest in the series’ “Murder at the Music Factory” (due to be published in April). I work as a doctor (Consultant Haematologist) in the Scottish NHS, and I have a background as a research scientist with a PhD in virus-driven lymphoma. I don’t know if being a medical professional makes me a particularly good judge of a book, but it does make me sensitive to its authenticity.

The science geek in me was drawn to these stories. What would life in Scotland be like in a pandemic situation? How would we cope with restrictions of freedoms? How would we carry on when friends and family were ill, or had succumbed? If that was what drew me in, then what kept me engaged were the brilliant believable characters, and the all-too-believable banality of the setting. If that sounds like a criticism, it most definitely isn’t. Part of the real terror of these books is seeing “the Virus” play out not in a high-tech research lab or outer space, but in a world of civil service administration, busy hospitals, Scottish parliamentary committee meetings, and forgotten ramshackle NHS buildings repurposed as offices.

The HET is comprised of individuals drawn from different professional backgrounds. Mona, Paterson and Maitland were police officers. Bernard has a background in public health promotion and Carole was a nurse. Like any multi-agency group, the biases and assumptions people bring to their work colour their interactions with each other, and with the people they meet in the course of their work. The stories are told mostly from the point of view of Mona, a previously high-flying detective now frustrated with her role, and Bernard, who wanted a quiet life helping people to stop smoking, but is now wildly out of his depth chasing criminals.

In the latest book, an undercover agent gone rogue is threatening to shoot a civil servant a day and is embroiled with doomsday cultists. The HET need to track him down before he can do any more harm. As in the previous books, the action races entertainingly along. These books are hard to put down! There is a dark humour in Kelly’s writing, and, now that this is book four, the characters are ones that we like, we want them to survive, even if we are metaphorically shouting at them on the page for doing something monumentally stupid!

In the depictions of hospitals and healthcare professionals in these books, there has been nothing that has caused me to suspend my belief. That Kelly has done her research is clear, but it is borne lightly. There is nothing worse as a doctor than your recreational reading becoming a Busman’s holiday. There is a “thrill” however (if that’s the right word), of reading the name of my health board in the book, or when some of the action takes place on my “patch”. Having a deadly pandemic described in a fictional work is all the more unnerving when you know that the hospital car park, the reception, the wards are real.

That the virology and epidemiology in the book is plausible goes without saying. Humankind has dealt with epidemics over the years (Laurie Garret’s The Coming Plague gives a particularly good non-fictional account), but our generation has not yet had to face a pandemic. Kelly’s work takes the “what if?” question of a 1918-style flu and places it in the modern world. We might yet see what this looks like in the coming months. In the meantime, you could do worse than read these witty and engaging books. In my opinion, the “Health of Strangers” is good for your health.

Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly