Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Double Blind by John Rowan Wilson

Here is Handel's Behold the Lamb of God from Messiah.

I love people watching.  Here are a few of the people I watched while in Israel.  These photos were taken in the old section Jerusalem near the wailing wall.

The Double BlindThe Double Blind by John Rowan Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book came with a group of books I bought on eBay. I only wanted one of the books, but it is serendipity that this book arrived as well.

The author, John Rowan Wilson, was a medical doctor and his stories, at least this one, circle around some sort of medical problem.

In this case, a surgeon, Peter Mayne who is now working as an administrator for the Royal Ministry of Health, must travel to a tropical island off the coast of Africa where a rogue doctor is testing a vaccination against encephalitis on the population. After three deaths, a local priest demands that the testing stop until it is ascertained whether the vaccination caused the deaths.

There are many elements to recommend this story. Wilson is able to weave medically technical information into a well-written plot and create an exciting, fascinating story.

The term "double blind" concerns studies where both doctors and clients do not know if a test drug or a placebo is being administered for the duration of the trial. (Results are studied afterward, and by impartial third party experts.) This prevents psychosomatic responses from the patient, and bias from a doctor who is eager for his medication to work.

Mayne's job is to travel to the island of Cajara, investigate and determine whether the local doctor, Martin Farrell can continue with his study or if the blind needs to be broken.

As if this particular assignment wasn't difficult enough, there is also a personal element. Peter and Martin were friends in Catholic school together. Martin married the woman Peter loved. Due to certain other acrimonious events aside from this, Mayne and Farrell fell out of contact. This interpersonal dynamic only adds to the tension that inevitably results from such situations. Now Mayne must confront a man he has not seen in ten years and also the woman he once wanted to marry.

If the plot line were all the novel had to recommend it, fine and well, but this is much more than that. This novel is one of the most excellent studies in psychological manipulation I have ever read.

As we read about Mayne and Farrell's childhood relationship and subsequent reunion, we see a well-fleshed out character study of narcissism that threatens to become a borderline paranoid personality disorder in a man who also is brilliant enough to play mind games that divide people into his slavish devotees or sworn enemies. His enemies initially started as a devotee until they ceased to be useful.

"Between the honeymoon and the final, inevitable disillusionment there was a stage, always distressing to watch, when the first doubts began to appear, when the idea began to obtrude itself that the association with genius might have certain disadvantages."

The evil genius in this case has the ability to leave everyone he comes into contact with shaken and second-guessing themselves, even those who have wised up to his true character, which is the case with Peter Maynes. He long ago figured Martin Farrell out, but every conversation was still an exhausting chess game.

The story is narrated from Mayne's point of view so we get to read his thoughts, which are quite perspicacious in his ability to read others.

Wilson also deftly draws an accurate picture of colonial countries and their relationship with the Mother Country. What responsibility does England have toward 3rd world countries where the life expectancy is thirty? Is it permissible to use unapproved drugs on the local populace, with their consent, especially since the death rate is already so high in large part due becoming infected with encephalitis from mosquitoes?

But what if the vaccine is infecting people with encephalitis, rather than inoculating them? Is the life of an islander worth that of a patient in the U.K.? Are third world citizens the new clients of the slum hospital clinic?

I also like how Wilson shows the various types of well-meaning First Worlders who live on the island. The priests are there to save souls and advocate for those that have no voice. The governor is there to make sure everything meets with mainland approval. The doctors are there to provide health care. While each is a type, Wilson manages to personalize them. No one is lampooned; everyone is multi-faceted, allowing the the reader to sympathize with each character, even the ones they might generally deplore.

There are a few odious types, at least that is how Wilson paints them: The rabid Socialist who is there to radicalize the people and make them revolt against their oppressors. What I found insightful was showing how unintentionally condescending they could be to the natives (of course you're primitive, ignorant and backwards, poor things, but it's England the Imperialist's fault).

The only failing I found was the romance. I understand inserting a love triangle adds an extra element of tension that allows one to see yet another side to an insecure and devious personality, but frankly, he needs to stick to what he does best, analyzing human nature. The romance between Mayne and Farrell's wife, Barbara, in addition to being adulterous, is awkward, stiff and painful to witness. If he had left it out, I would not have missed it.

Thankfully, the romance is mostly marginal.

Other than that quibble, I enjoyed this story and will be looking for more of this author's works. Probably not an easy challenge since I'm sure most of his books are out of print.

View all my reviews


mudpuddle said...

admirable post and essay... i haven't heard of Wilson, but it just reminds me that there's a whole lot of authors out there that are excellent craftsmen, but that nobody has ever heard of... that's the main draw of old used bookstores as opposed to the web: the chance to accidentally happen across a gem of a book. that sort of inquiry, of course, is impossible on the net... how did you happen to get this from ebay?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hello mudpuddle!

It was a happy accident, for sure. I wanted another book and someone was offering both books for a cheap price, so I went ahead and bought them. This one was a good as the book I intended to buy, so I am happily looking for other books by this author. There seem to be several. It'd be nice if I can find someone selling a group of them as a lot.

Visiting bookstores cannot be replaced by the internet for sure. Yesterday I visited two Independent bookstores. Neither had what I wanted but one has a couple of books that I didn't know I wanted and I now own them. Hee hee.

Brian Joseph said...

Super review. I want to read this book. Medical ethics are an interesting subject in and of itself.

That quotation about narcissists is both insightful and well written. That type of person can wreak havoc upon the world. They do make for interesting literary characters.

Have a great day!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian,

I also find books about medicine and ethics very interesting. And I'm sure everyone knows at least one narcissist. They are fascinating, but dangerous to be around.

Have a good week!

mudpuddle said...

lovely picture of a Cardinal chewing on a walnut! tx and Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi mudpuddle. I've been sending out my paintings to strangers in my postcrossing club. I felt I should at least send one to a fellow blogger who enjoys cards. May you and Mrs. Muddpuddle have a blessed season!