Sunday, November 09, 2014


A few months ago I ran across a Jack Bickham title that was new to me. It was a paperback original published by Pyramid in 1975. The title: The Invisible Plague. My girl was kind enough to give me a copy for father’s day, and it hit the top of my to-be-read pile earlier this week.

Davey Clock is a professor of College English, specializing in Shakespeare, at a small Midwest university. He is middle age, overweight, divorced, a pacifist, and something of a coward. At the end of summer term he makes a late night trip to his campus office. The tropical fish he keeps need attention, a pile of papers await grading before his summer break can begin; which includes a week of vacation in his favorite city, San Francisco, and another of research in Guatemala City.  

The harsh sound of a fire alarm in the Microbiology building interrupts his night. After calling the fire department he wanders over for a closer look. He is rewarded with a blackjack to the back of the skull when he offers help to a man exiting the building in a rush. When he awakens in hospital he finds himself in the middle of an investigation by a shadowy government agency—a deadly toxin was stolen and the professor developing it was killed. A situation Davey likes even less than the ache in his head.

The Invisible Plague is a slick, linear thriller. It is quick, stark, and very much of its era—government mistrust, war weary, and cynical. Cynical in both the government’s treatment of Davey, and Davey’s reaction to that treatment. Davey Clock is painted as something of a Hamlet—indecisive with an early lack of personal courage. He also has an annoying habit of quoting Shakespeare in everyday conversation, and a certain self-righteousness (particularly early in the novel) that is barely contained.

The plot is designed in a simple, but effective, three act format. In the first act Davey is introduced, as is the primary confrontation—the robbers, and to a lesser extent the government agents. The second act is comprised of Davey’s attempts to deal with both, and the third, executed very well, is the climax, which includes both a satisfactory conclusion, and something of a redemption for Davey.

The Invisible Plague is an entertaining novel. It appears its distribution was limited—I have been looking for Jack Bickham titles for 20 years and have seen it only on the Internet—but it is worth a look if you enjoy the older style thriller in general, and the work of Jack Bickham in particular. It reminded me a little, although not quite as good, as Dean Koontz’s (as by K. R. Dwyer) Dragonfly.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, thanks for reviewing this book. Jack M. Bickham is a new author for me and I don't think I have come across his novels. I detect shades of Robin Cook in this book although there is no comparison since I haven't read Bickham.

Ben Boulden said...

Prashant. Jack Bickham is one of my favorite writers. I think the work of Robin Cook, as far as the toxin plot goes, is more sophisticated than THE INVISIBLE PLAGUE. Bickham's best work, in my mind, is a series of thrillers he wrote for TOR in the 1980s and 1990s. A few titles are SEVEN DAYS, THE REGENSBURG LEGACY, and his Brad Smith novels (TIEBREAKER, DROP SHOT, BREAKFAST AT WIMBLEDON, etc.) A list of his TOR novels is here:

He also wrote some really good thrillers in the mid-1970s for the Black Bat mystery series. The best are THE NIGHT HUNTERS, and OPERATION NIGHTFALL. A list of his Black Bat titles are here:

And, he also wrote a bunch of westerns in the early-1960s to the 1970s, including THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, which the old Disney movie is based on.

I can't recommend Jack Bickham enough. I really like all his work.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, thanks for the info on Bickham's fiction. Thrillers, westerns, and espionage are my favourite category of novels, so I'll be on the lookout for his books. The used bookshops in Bombay often throw up surprises, especially paperbacks of the mid- to late 20th century shipped in the millions from the US, and I'm hopeful of finding some.