Scottish scientists seek stolen serum

Ken Follett’s new suspense novel lets the upper classes find love in the hot zone

Niels Strandskov

So begins one of the chapters in Ken Follett’s new super-bug potboiler “Whiteout.” The Kremlin referred to is not the famous seat of Russian political power. Rather, it’s a fancy house in Scotland that has been converted into a high-security viral research laboratory.

Two disasters befall the inhabitants of the lab and their extended social network. First, a technician falls prey to an Ebola virus variant. Then, samples of the same virus are stolen by a big-time criminal gang. Britain’s only hope for averting a plague is Toni Gallo, the plucky, resourceful head of security for the Kremlin, aka Oxenford Medical.

Not all of Follett’s prose is quite as mundane as the example above, but it doesn’t get a great deal more cerebral either. That’s to be expected, because the author’s bread and butter is just this sort of predigested pop literature, perfect for airport departure lounges and anywhere else functionally literate people need to zone out for a while.

Follett’s characters inhabit a Scotland quite different from what we might see in an Irvine Welsh movie, for instance. They eat “fries” instead of chips and attend the “10th grade,” just as if they lived in the United States. Moreover, everyone drives a fancy car. Among the main characters’ vehicles are a Ferrari, a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Porsche Boxster, a Jaguar and a Mercedes. We’re a long way from the Scottish slums of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

These none-too-subtle nods to his audience’s aspirational fantasies are key to Follett’s style and his popularity. The message of “Whiteout,” and other books of its ilk, is that middle-class, middle-management drones need only to

keep showing up for work and doing their best to provide a good answer to the question, “Is it good for the company?” They will also be rewarded with the delights of a flashy car, weekends at spas and the prospect of more money in the future.

The structure of “Whiteout” supports these delusions. In each short chapter, the reader is guaranteed some little tension – pretty scenery, violent action, maybe a little sex – that keeps the pages turning. It’s this sort of delayed, measured gratification that underscores the novel’s ideology. Unlike the real corporate world Follett’s target demographic inhabits, his characters, and the readers, are treated to continuous doses of excitement as the narrative unfolds. A real corporate type might have to suffer through years of stultifying boredom to achieve one petty triumph (sexual or financial), but Follett’s readers are treated to a bit of fun every few pages.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call “Whiteout” a suspense novel. Is there anyone so naive that they could actually be in doubt about whether the good, white, rich people will prevail over the multiracial, vaguely gender-outlaw group of thieves? Hard to believe. And yet, plenty of people seem willing to stake their lives on the promise that their loyalty to a system based on cruelty and exploitation will someday be rewarded.