Title: Contagion
Author: Cook, Robin
Published: New York: Berkley, 1995
Length: 480 pages
ISBN: 0425155943
Keywords: basketball, examiner, medical, microbiology, 
          nyc, pathology, plauge, rickettsia, tularemia
Review by: Don Kuenz

Robin Cook


The triplet of unrelated incidents, which occur on June 12, 1991, bear little in common: A microbiologist adds a rare 1918 virus to his collection when he performs unauthorized archaeology at an abandoned igloo buried beneath a snowpack near Prudhoe Bay. Ophthalmologist John Stapleton loses his young family to an airplane crash. And mother-to-be Terese Hagen loses her unborn baby, her uterus, and her husband all on the same day. Five years later these events culminate in a crisis at Manhattan General, an AmeriCare hospital.

When Winter wanes into Spring 1996, three highly contagious diseases: black death, tularemia, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, show up in as many days at Manhattan General. Were they not fictional, this trio of infectious narratives, from the first half of Contagion, would each befit its own chapter in The Medical Detectives (Roueché), an unofficial textbook for medical students. In fact, a few cases covered by The Medical Detectives can function as a practical primer for this story.

Lives hang in the balance as Medical Examiner Jack Stapleton races against time to track down the source of recent outbreaks of black death, tularemia, rickettsia, and finally flu, in New York City. In all cases, Manhattan General Hospital is indicated as the sole source of the diseases. At first, for reasons revealed later, Stapleton's schadenfreude surfaces over the outbreak at an AmeriCare facility. It also assists ad executive Terese Hagen, whose clientele includes an AmeriCare rival.

Title, teasers, cover, characters, & blurb


“Who’d have ever thought the peaceful practice of medicine could be so exciting? It’s a good, fast read.”
—The Denver Post
“The underlying theme—how easily could someone start an epidemic—is answered in a pretty chilling way.”
—The Birmingham News

Character list:

  • Jack "John", Marilyn, Lydia, and Tamara Stapleton–Ophthalmologist turned Medical Examiner and his late wife and daughters.
  • Terese and Michael Hagen–Creative director at the advertising firm of Willow and Heath and her ex-spouse.
  • Dr Laurie Montgomery–Stapleton's colleague and confidante.
  • Dr Calvin Washington–Deputy Chief Medical Examiner of New York City.
  • Warren–Gangsta Hoods leader.
  • Dr Martin Cheveau–Manhattan General Lab Director.
  • Marvin "Twin" Thomas–Black Kings gang leader.
  • Chief Medical Examiner Dr Harold Bingham, Vinnie Amendola, Janice Jaeger, Dr Chet McGovern, Sal D’Ambrosio, Bart Arnold, Agnes Finn, Maureen O'Conner, Dr George Fontworth, Maureen O'Conner, Dr Steve Mariott, DNA Lab Director Dr Ted Lynet, Marjorie Zankowsk–Medical Examiner employees.
  • Taylor Heath, Brian Wilson, Robert Barker, Helen Robinson, Marsha Devons, Colleen Anderson, Phil Atkins, Carlene Desalvo, Alice Gerber, Nelson Friedman–Willow and Heath employees.
  • Donald Nodelman and Mrs Nodelman, Susanne Hard, Donald Lagenthorpe, Valerie Schafer, Carmen Chavez, Carlo Pacini–Manhattan General patients and spouse.
  • Board of Health Commissioner Dr Patricia Markham and Epidemiologist Dr Clint Abelard–New York City Board of Health employees.
  • President Charles Kelley, Dr Carol Glanz, Gladys Zarelli, Dr Carl Wainwright, Dr Mary Zimmerman, Kathy McBane, George Eversharp, Richard Overstreet, Nancy Wiggens, Beth Holderness, Katherine Mueller, Dr Doyle, Maria Lopez, Joy Hester, Robert Caruso, Imogene Philbertson, Gloria and son Juan Hernandez, Darlene Springborn, Kim Spensor, George Haselton, William Pearson–Manhattan General employees and son.
  • Ron, "Flash," "Spit," David, "Slam"–members of the Gangsta Hoods from Manhattan Valley on the Upper West Side.
  • Phil, Reginald Winthrope, Bruce "BJ" Jefferson–Black Kings gang members.
  • Microbiologist Dr Gary Eckhart–city reference lab employee.
  • Igor Krasnyansky–National Biologicals employee.
  • Nicole Marquette, Dr Hirose Nakano–CDC employees.
  • Tony Liggio–courier company supervisor.
  • Sergeant Murphy, Detective Lieutenant Lou Soldano, Shawn Magoginal, Sergeant Wilson–NYC Police Officers.
  • Ron Halverton–Prudhoe Bay oilfield worker.
  • Tex Hartmann–Proprietor of a check-cashing place, mailbox rental, and pawnshop in SoHo.

From the undisputed master of the medical thriller comes the story of a deadly epidemic spread not merely by microbes but by sinister sabotage—a terrifying cautionary tale for the millennium as the health care giants collide…


After Dr John Stapleton loses both his young family and his ophthalmology practice, he develops a death wish, changes his name to Jack, and relocates to the Big Apple. He defies death daily, recklessly dashing through traffic on a bicycle to commute to work. As a newly minted Medical Examiner, he wallows with the dead. The pile of fresh, soon to be filled, pine coffins outside his office door, do double duty as a bicycle stand. He calls the sixth floor of a Harlem ghetto tenement home and is one of the few white guys grudgingly accepted on a nearby basketball-gangster court combo.

Meanwhile, Teresa Hagen, finds herself in the battle of her career, at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, whose President will soon retire. The top slot is in play, and Teresa's one of the two heirs apparent. Teresa's a shoo-in for the Presidency provided she retains the agency's most valued client, National Health, whose gone wobbly over Teresa's latest campaign.

On the first day of Spring, 1996, Stapleton diagnoses black death in a corpse, much to the chagrin of his immediate boss, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Washington. Although it seems simply too incredible, a lab soon confirms Stapleton's diagnosis. After a string of similar deaths from rare diseases, Stapleton soon suspects a Machiavellian pattern to events.


Cook's medical thrillers follow a formula. It's an expected, enjoyable requisite, demanded by me. Cook's formula's every bit as important to me as the Levinson and Link formula used to create top shelf Columbo scripts. Speaking of Columbo, Cook gives Detective Lieutenant Lou Soldano a rather rumpled appearance in this story.

Levinson and Link's inverted whodunit discloses the identity of their villain at the start of the story. Then their villain inevitably bonds with Detective Lieutenant Columbo in order to better lead the Lieutenant astray. Cook works it nearly the same way, only the villain's identity is more conventional and kept under wraps until the denouement. The villain tends to be a likable, charismatic person, who only wants to help the protagonist (not solve the case).

Another aspect of Cook's formula is a plethora characters. Contagion contains nearly one hundred characters. And Cook names nearly every character, even those mentioned only once in passing.

Cook's stories primarily provide me with escapist entertainment. Character development doesn't matter to me. Regardless, during the course of this story, Stapleton changes from a man with a death wish to a man with a future.

As is often the case with Cook, healthcare sacrificed on the alter of corporate profit is one of the themes present in this story. The Medical Detectives (Roueché) epidemiological angle also adds an extra dimension. All things considered, Contagion delivers a solid story, worthy my time.


anorak arthropods caseation chemoprophylaxis contumacious coryza ectopic endothelium fluorescein fulminatory meningococcus myalgia myocarditis nosocomial PCR pleomorphism preauricular purpura pertussis rickettsia rimantadine serologic serotype streptomycin tetracycline tetracycline titer volar


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