Bite | Nick Louth | 2007 (this edn 2015) | Sphere | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
Amsterdam is hosting a scientific conference on parasites to which many of the world’s leading pharma bosses and tropical disease experts are drawn. All want to hear Erica Stroud-Jones speak about her cutting-edge research. Rumours circulate that Erica is about to announce a cure to the disease that kills millions of people every year – malaria. But the night before the conference begins Erica disappears from the hotel room she was sharing with her boyfriend of just a few months, American sculptor Max Carver. Max is frantic, desperate to interest the local police force in her disappearance but to no avail. If anything, they view him as a subject. When Max spots a young woman stealing Erica’s laptop from their hire car, he runs after her, embarking on a cat and mouse hunt that will lead him into a very dangerous world indeed, a dark place ruled by somebody lethal.
But Amsterdam has much more to contend with than a stolen scientist. A plane bound for the city is attacked by a terrorist. He bears no bombs or bullets. Instead he releases something into the cabin that likes nothing better than to bite. It’s not long before Amsterdam is facing an epidemic which the conference experts must combat before they, too, fall victim.
The title of Bite is an appropriate one. This is a book that made me itch, alive as it is with the whine of mosquitoes, the itch of their bites and the heat of the fever they induce. It’s also a thriller that’s divided in two. Much of the book focuses on Max’s hunt for the violent and bloody men he believes hold Erica. Max hasn’t known Erica for that long and it is clear to him that there is so much he has yet to learn about her. It’s the mystery of Erica that we discover in the other half of the book. Scattered throughout are journal extracts in which Erica recalls her time as a researcher in sub-Saharan Africa some years before. Although these are presented as pieces from a journal, they read in a much more flowing and accessible format than that suggests. They present a vivid, shocking and bare account of a nightmare that Erica and her colleagues endured for months.
Bite presents itself as ‘the most gripping thriller you’ll ever read’ which, I think, is a mistake. It isn’t the most gripping thriller I’ve read, in fact it doesn’t come close, but while I was reading it I felt compelled to finish it. This was largely because of the African sections of the book, which are by far the most involving and interesting elements of the story. Although, having said that, I also found them difficult to read. They include detailed descriptions of psychological and physical torture. The scenes in modern Amsterdam also include some horrific moments. This is a novel that I often found quite unpleasant.
One of my main issues with the novel was caused by the character of Max, the boyfriend turned detective. He gets battered about an awful lot, losing teeth and so on. And yet by the next chapter he’s picked himself up and carrying on as ‘normal’ in his new superspy and ruthless guise. Likewise, the woman (Lisbeth) Max befriends in the chase is also confused. My other main issue is with the epidemic aspect of the thriller. I was interested by all the science but this part of the novel never takes off. It all seems rather low key and undramatic. It couldn’t compete with Erica’s experiences in Africa. However, even Erica remains distant, slightly vague.
For much of the time Bite wants to escape expectations. It’s presented as a gripping thriller but it wants to be more than that, hence the harrowing sections in Africa and its depiction of the moral issues surrounding Big Pharma’s investment (or lack of it) in the treatment of malaria in Africa. There is some fine writing on show here and it’s in these sections that Nick Louth comes into his own. However, in other sections the writing, especially the dialogue, is a little odd. Max’s repeated use of ‘ain’t’, for example, really stood out to me as out of place. Despite all this, though, Bite is an intriguing and pageturning novel with some surprising twists, albeit one that for me proved rather disappointing.
Bite was first published in 2007 and now reissued by Sphere as an ebook in 2014 and as a paperback in 2015.