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Deadly Feasts

Richard Rhodes is an award-winning author, but his 1997 book Deadly Feasts: The "Prion" Controversy and the Public's Health is an uneven ride, smooth in its scientific sections but otherwise jarring. Perhaps it's Rhodes's tendency to dramatize the gruesome symptoms of kuru, Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease, scrapie, BSE, and related diseases. Perhaps it's his lasciviously detailed descriptions of cannibalism, autopsies, and slaughterhouses. Perhaps it's the first-person intrusions that lend a grating "I'm right and you'd better know it" tone to the text. Perhaps it's the heavy baggage that a central character in the story, Nobel-prize-winning researcher D. Carleton Gajdusek, picked up when he was arrested and pled guilty in 1996 of child molestation—a matter that Rhodes dismisses in a few sentences buried in the middle of Chapter 13. A parenthetical aside, "However troubling his personal life, his authority as a scientist was never in doubt." doesn't seem quite sufficient to balance earlier reams of praise.

Most likely, though, the key problem with Deadly Feasts is that the book became dated soon after its publication. Like many threatening epidemics—Black Plague, smallpox, polio, AIDS, avian influenza, anthrax, etc.—mad cow disease was terrifying only when it wasn't understood. Once medical science and public health figured out ways to identify, treat, and prevent the spread of the infection, the scare factor largely evaporated. Tragedy persists, but far short of global disaster.

Raymond Chandler's remarks about good mystery novels are relevant. A powerful story doesn't have to have a short shelf-life, if it focuses not on plot and punchline but rather on characterization, atmosphere, and drama. Likewise for a history of scientific detective-work and discovery.

(cf. Know How and Fear Not (1999-11-19), Simple Art of Murder (2005-12-04), Trouble Is My Business (2008-07-20), ...) - ^z - 2008-08-21


(correlates: Theory of Flight, CleanupHitter, TypeVee, ...)