Last week on this site I expressed the opinion that most readers are not yet ready to read stories about COVID-19 for entertainment. But as Kevin Mims notes in the following essay, a number of publications, including the New York Times, put out reading lists for the lockdown that consisted primarily of fiction turning around plagues of one sort or another. If you are in the mood to read about a pandemic, Kevin has unearthed an old thriller that sounds worth the excavation. Amazon appears to have a couple dozen used copies available, and I imagine there are a few around elsewhere too. Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site who also writers short stories for EQMM and AHMM.—Janet Hutchings
Essays about what to read during this pandemic have proliferated online since COVID-19 seized control of our societies. On March 12, the New York Times published a listicle entitled “Your Quarantine Reader,” which recommended fictions such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, David Koepp’s Cold Storage, Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions, Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Stephen King’s The Stand, and of course Albert Camus’s The Plague. Among the titles recommended by Vulture were Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Not all of these books parallel the current crisis especially well, but browsing through the titles reminded me of a political thriller/crime novel from 1977 that I did not see mentioned on any of these lists. I first read The Black Death years ago and had forgotten most of it. I picked it up again with the intention of writing a lightly comic essay about how poorly its authors had anticipated the effects of a pandemic on New York City. But I was taken aback by how much the story got right or nearly right. The book is a pot-boiler, of course, not an academic study, and so it is by no means accurate in every respect. For instance, in the novel, many of New York’s essential workers—cops, nurses, firemen, transit workers, sanitation workers—simply stage a sick-out rather than expose themselves to a deadly disease by performing their suddenly-more-dangerous jobs. In the current epidemic, as we know, the members of these professions have performed heroically. Nevertheless, I found it startlingly prescient in a number of important ways.
My dogeared copy includes no biographies of the novel’s two coauthors, Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr. I have since discovered from an internet search that Cravens is an experienced journalist whose work has appeared in Harpers, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. In 2007, she wrote a nonfiction book entitled The Power to Save the World advocating the use of nuclear power as a solution to climate change. Dr. Marr, meanwhile, is a Harvard-trained epidemiologist who at one time served as director of the New York City Bureau of Communicable Diseases. In April, he appeared with Dr. Lloyd Novick on the podcast of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice to discuss the COVID-19 epidemic. So, in retrospect, it is unsurprising that the authors brought a good deal of knowledge and sobriety to their joint literary venture. Alas, the U.S. paperback edition was given one of the more lurid covers of the era, featuring a giant rat baring its teeth and encircling Manhattan with its body and its tail. That artwork almost certainly deterred more serious-minded readers, but it has made the book a cult favorite among geeks like me who love twentieth-century pulp fiction. In any event, Cravens’s and Marr’s novel deserves to be read, not least because it offered an engrossing and well-informed picture of what would befall America (or, at least, New York City) were it to be caught unprepared during a lethal pandemic.
The story opens with young New York hippie Sarah Dobbs returning from a backpacking trip in California and discovering that she suffers from what she thinks at first might be a cold. As breathing becomes more difficult for her, she suspects she might have the flu. In fact, she is in the advanced stages of a pneumonia brought on by an as-yet-unidentified pathogen. The authors describe how the human body responds when it is invaded by a dangerous microorganism such as a virus or a bacterium:
She was already using a great deal of strength just to keep breathing. The air sacs of her lungs were brimming with the organism and the moist residue of her battle. Destroy, destroy, her body said, and tissues harboring the enemy were sloughed off and coughed up. Burn it out, burn it out, her body said, and her fever increased. Block it, seal it off, ordered the body, and capillaries began shutting down. The flow of blood through arteries now slowed, and her blood pressure dropped. She was starving for oxygen, and the tips of her fingers were turning blue.
She sets out from her New York apartment in search of the nearest hospital but falls unconscious in the street. Her doorman, an illegal immigrant named Domingo Ortiz, calls for an ambulance. She never regains consciousness and dies at the hospital. Because she was carrying no identification, and because she was a young hippie with weird scratches on her arms (another manifestation of the disease), she is initially assumed to be a drug addict who suffered an accidental overdose. It is not until the hospital lab returns the results of a sputum test (sputum is a combination of mucus and saliva found in diseased lungs) that the physicians in charge of the dead girl’s case realize that she didn’t die of an overdose but of a disease, and possibly a highly contagious and deadly one. Unlike COVID-19, which apparently originated in bats, the fictional disease that strikes New Yorkers in The BlackDeath originates in rodents (Sarah got it from a California ground squirrel, but rats are carriers too). But it is not the bubonic plague. Rather it is described as a “pneumonic plague,” because, like COVID-19, it attacks the respiratory system of its victims and suffocates them over the course of several days. Shortly after Sarah Dobbs drops dead, so too does a pimp named Flash, who accosted her at the Port Authority Bus Station when she arrived back in New York. Flash thought she might be a runaway and was hoping to enlist her in his stable of prostitutes. But Sarah (who, we eventually discover, is the teenage daughter of wealthy parents who live on Fifth Avenue) just brushes right past Flash, coughing in his face as she does so. Next to die is Domingo Ortiz, and then several of the doctors and nurses who treated Sarah when she was hospitalized. At about this time Dr. David Hart, the director of New York City’s Bureau of Preventable Diseases, takes charge of the investigation into just what it is that is killing off New Yorkers at an alarming rate. At this point the book becomes not just a thriller, but also a crime novel. It turns out that the disease didn’t arise accidentally but was developed by rogue elements in the government during the era of the Cuban Missile crisis. These rogues planned to work with the Mafia in south Florida in order to unleash the plague (Latin name Yersinia pestis) on Cuba in order to destabilize it and oust Fidel Castro. Here’s how one character describes the covert operation:
On November 2, 1963, a Mafia yacht dropped off two Cuban exiles on the Cuban coast near Havana. They were working for Executive Action, part of the AM/LASH CIA base in Florida, and they each carried two specially designed bulbs filled with the organism Yersinia pestis, or plague. They were to be picked up the following night, but they never reappeared. None of our assets in Havana ever learned what happened to them. The venture was known as Operation Visitation, and until tonight I had only heard stories about it—the records were supposedly destroyed. But now I am in a position to confirm that the action did take place and that those responsible are still highly placed in the government.
As you might expect, those highly placed U.S. government officials are eager to avoid being exposed as the original source of the current plague, which apparently made its way to America via Cuban exiles who were once CIA assets. And these officials will stop at nothing—including mass murder on an epic scale—to cover up their crimes.
As the virus spreads, the authors illustrate the ways in which epidemics strike various segments of society differently. The authors acknowledge that minority communities and neighborhoods are likely to be particularly affected because they are disproportionately poor, and that illegal immigrants might be reluctant to seek medical aid due to their undocumented status and fear of deportation. Page 39 of the paperback edition includes a chart of a hypothetical epidemic, which shows that men are more vulnerable than women and that the elderly are more vulnerable than the young, which seems to be the case with COVID-19 as well.
There has been some debate during the COVID-19 pandemic about the effectiveness of face masks and gloves, but the authors of The Black Death knew 43 years ago that those things are vital in fighting off disease. From page 44:
To a morgue attendant who waited in the doorway, Hart said, “Get the body to the Medical Examiner’s and make sure everyone who has anything to do with it wears masks and gloves.”
From page 54:
The two men looked at each other in silence. Then they went to a cabinet against the wall and took out rubber surgical gloves. They changed their masks . . . The attendant came back as they were finishing up. “That was fast, you guys. You usually take an hour.”
“Get the fuck out of here, Jerry,” Chakarian snapped.
. . . Put on a mask and gloves, you stupid bastard, and then come help us.”
Like the epidemiologists fighting COVID-19, the medical experts in The BlackDeath also understand the importance of tracking everyone who may have come in contact with a carrier of the disease. Dolores Rodriguez, an epidemiological nurse, tells her boss (and secret lover) Dr. Hart,
“I’ve been checking around the hospital. Counting the lab technicians exposed to the blood and sputum cultures, the stretcher attendants, the orderlies, the aides, the nurses, and the doctors, fifty-five people were exposed to Jane Doe [at this point Sarah Dobbs’s identity is still unknown] on Sunday. You can figure there were some people who rode up with her in the elevator from the emergency room—say three unidentified exposures there. Of all those exposed, I guess that at least twelve people had close exposure to the patient and thirteen had intimate exposure. On Monday, seventeen more were exposed, one closely and fourteen intimately. And then, after she died, five more had intimate exposure, including the morgue attendants. The grand total is about eighty-two, with seventy-seven identified.”
Hart thinks to himself: If those seventy-seven contacts Delores had identified had each made only one [additional] contact, that was one-hundred-and-fifty-four people exposed. And if each of those had made contacts . . . Oh, God. It spread so fast—in a breath, a touch, a sneeze, a handshake, a curse.
Also prescient was the authors’ understanding that, in an epidemic, ventilators would be in short supply.
Garson followed Hart as he moved swiftly through the corridor. “We don’t have enough personnel to handle all the cases that are coming in! Many of them need respirators and intensive care!”
Later an epidemiology nurse tells Hart, “They’re bringing in respirators from Queens, and they still don’t have enough to manage the intensive-care patients.” (Dictionary.com argues that respirators are face masks worn by medical professionals to protect them from diseases, whereas ventilators are devices that help patients breathe, but in 1977 it appears that “respirator” was the term for devices that help patients breathe—at least that is the term that Cravens and Dr. Marr use in the book.)
But perhaps most impressive is not what Cravens and Marr got right about the medical aspects of a highly infectious respiratory illness, but what they got right about how society—the media, politicians, and citizens—would respond to such a pandemic. At one point, Dr. Hart recalls an outbreak of smallpox back in 1948:
The city government ordered everyone in the five boroughs who had not had a recent immunization to have shots [and] everyone cooperated. President Truman had one before visiting the city. Over six million people vaccinated in two weeks. Now, Hart knew, there would be no return of the miracle of ’48. Decentralization, “community awareness,” an infectious distrust of government, and federal indifference would all work against any “war effort.” And the health department had been much bigger then . . . Now, thanks to successive budget cuts, the money and personnel to fight a major epidemic no longer existed.
Later in the book, Irving Kaprow, head of New York Mayor Syd Weinstein’s Task Force for Emergency Preparedness, tells Dr. Hart, “It’s about that statement of Imminent Peril. The Board of Health met and ratified it and passed it on to the Mayor. But now he’s changed his mind. He doesn’t want to deliver it. He’s afraid that if he asks people to avoid public transportation, there will be bad traffic tie-ups everywhere . . . And he doesn’t want to say that it’s the plague or that we should be prepared for a serious epidemic. He thinks those are scare tactics.”
Shortly thereafter, Mayor Weinstein himself tells Dr. Hart,
“I don’t understand how this epidemic is a serious threat to the entire city when almost nobody is sick,” a reflexive response echoed in some quarters of social media even now. Weinstein is altogether more concerned about the devastating effects of the pandemic on the economy than its devastating effects on the human body. When Dr. Hart asks him to declare a State of Emergency, the Mayor replies: “I am extremely reluctant to do that on account of the fact that when a State of Emergency is declared, people get very excited. The law is that, in a State of Emergency, all insurance policies are automatically voided. The business community would go into a turmoil, which would have a ripple effect. The threat to property—”
At which point, Dr. Hart interjects:
“Goddamn it, your life is the best personal property you own! And the best way to protect it is to bring in the Guard, and even Army medical personnel, and solicit volunteer nurses and doctors. The resources of the Health Department have been exhausted. We are not sitting on our hands! We’ve been working day and night. The hospitals are barely able to manage, and the cases are still coming in. When I left Metropolitan Hospital a few minutes ago, there were sixty-two cases jammed into a small isolation ward. Many of them require intensive care, and special machinery that we’ll have to bring in from the other boroughs. And outside the hospital there’s a large worried crowd . . . Your Honor, I know that we can stop the epidemic right now, within the next few days, if we’re given enough help and cooperation. Politics has to be put aside; otherwise, more people will die in a mass panic—caused by conflicting reports and terrible rumors . . .”
The authors of The Black Death foresaw that a pandemic might create a rift between government officials and medical authorities and wove it into their plot, more than forty years before the current pandemic.The authors are also prescient about the unreliability of government statistics during the early days of a pandemic as health officials struggle to understand the behavior of this new pathogen. Fictional CIA Director Bryce Marks tells the men gathered at a security briefing:
“It’s difficult to determine true statistics during plague, because systems of reporting differ from country to country, and usually cases are underreported. This is partly because only confirmed cases are reported to the World Health Organization in most countries, and partly because many countries conceal cases for economic and political reasons. So we have no accurate picture of the extent of plague in the world, although WHO estimates that it is more prevalent by a factor of three than the figures show.”
At all levels of government, Cravens and Marr anticipated leadership more interested in restarting a frozen economy than in protecting lives. In one scene, the Secretary of the Treasury says, “I thought we had agreed that a stoppage of the financial and communications structure lasting beyond two weeks was unacceptable, given the economic disruption we’re currently experiencing.” In another scene, General Cosgrove, the President’s National Security Advisor, meets with his team and tells them:
“I have met with the President again today, and he has requested that we formulate specific response options to effect a speedy restoration of the critical financial, port-oriented, and general decision-making activities of New York City. The current disruption of the economy and world trade must end. We’re already under extreme pressure from all the nations in the free world, who are deeply concerned about their gold reserves—a total of eighteen billion dollars in gold bullion—in the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan . . . I suggest that we address ourselves to compiling action scenarios to present to the President.”
This excerpt also shows how deftly the authors were able to mimic the self-important jargon that marred so much of business and political communication in the 1970s (for instance, “address ourselves to compiling action scenarios” rather than “come up with a plan”) and which has only worsened in the years since. And just as some contemporary American pundits have insisted, despite a dearth of contrary evidence, that COVID-19 may have been developed as a bioweapon in a Chinese laboratory, the military personnel in The Black Death are determined to lay the blame on foreigners:
“I might add, sir,” Cosgrove went on, “that we can’t rule out the possibility that the New York outbreak represents the use of bacteriological warfare by a hostile power, and that further attacks are being contemplated.”
Later, CIA director Marks wants to play up this possibility in order to distract the public from the administration’s bungled response to the outbreak.
“Can we formulate a believable adversary action to help create an external focus of public outrage?” Marks asked.
“An overt statement on the part of the President suggesting that Cuba was responsible for the plague is a constructive possibility,” Cosgrove replied.
In speculating about how a dangerous epidemic might play out in New York City, Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr didn’t get everything right. But their forty-seven-year-old political thriller/crime novel was prescient on many levels. People who look down their noses at popular fictional genres—science fiction, mystery, thrillers, etc.—don’t realize that often times these books contain valuable insights into human nature and the ways that societies work (or fail to work). In times of crisis we’re often encouraged to turn to literary classics for guidance in how to behave and endure. But popular fiction can also fill this role. And sometimes it does so more accurately than even so-called “serious literature” does.
I often think that popular fiction is a good way to show us the world. Sort of like coating a bitter pill with sugar. Sounds like this book fits that bill.