Stephen Miller's The Messenger brings a dark plot
By Stephen Miller. Delacorte, 319 pp, hardcover
Stephen Miller’s The Messenger is a novel about a bio-terrorist who travels across America infecting the unsuspecting population with a lethal strain of smallpox. It’s a road trip filled with enough fear and loathing to scare the pants off Hunter S. Thompson. Along the way, Miller serves up a mesmerizing thriller that does double duty as an accomplished work of literature.
A graduate of the UBC creative-writing program, Miller is a locally based actor and writer whose previous novels include the historical thrillers Field of Mars and The Last Train to Kazan. In contrast, The Messenger has the feel of an emergency news bulletin from CNN. While the author’s endnotes inform us that he’s kept the exact origins of his Middle Eastern terrorists deliberately vague, his painstaking research on bio-terrorism comes across as utterly convincing.
The young terrorist travels under the pseudonym of Daria Vermiglio, masquerading as an Italian journalist. As a result of being infected with smallpox, Daria is aware that everyone she touches is condemned to death. Trained to think of herself as an arrow heading “straight to the heart” of America, she infiltrates such vulnerable targets as a Wall Street brokerage. She constantly reminds herself to touch everything she can—from bathroom faucets to a slick stock trader who thinks he’s getting lucky.
It’s not long before the exploits of Daria and her conspirators draw a slew of government troubleshooters into the mix. One of them is bio-warfare expert Sam Watterman, a scientist who retired in disgrace when he was made a scapegoat for 2001’s anthrax scare. Sam would rather be taking care of his invalid wife. But the prospect of being useful during the onset of a modern plague is too great to resist.
As the tension mounts, we get a close look at the dark side of the American dream. At the same time, The Messenger is laced with a generous amount of compassion for all concerned. In the end, we’re left with something more than mere thrills: genuine insight into the human condition.