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Dead on Arrival


Dead on Arrival

This technothriller with a far-fetched plot and written in clunky prose is an oddly enjoyable summer read. Maybe it’s because the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, seems to be grappling with complex characters and big ideas, so that even when their delivery is sometimes clumsy, the reader is still pulled into the story. The subject matter couldn’t be more timely: our obsession with social media and smartphones, as we tune out the world around us and dismiss the voices that don’t mirror our own beliefs. Matt Richtel, who writes about science and technology in his day job, brings his expertise to bear on the story, which is very much about how our focus, passion --- and reality --- are now controlled by what we view online.

The story begins with a plane landing in Steamboat Springs. It appears as though everyone outside the plane is dead, and soon it looks like most within it are too. Dr. Lyle Martin, an infectious disease expert who has fallen on hard times, is asked by the pilot to help figure out what this seeming pandemic is. The small band of “survivors,” which includes Jerry, the flight deck officer; Eleanor, the pilot; and Alex, a passenger who works in tech and miraculously escaped infection, make it into the terminal, looking for clues.

"[W]hat makes DEAD ON ARRIVAL most appealing is that the issues it raises stay with the reader after the final page; it’s not just a good read, it’s a provocative one."

Lyle, who is an incipient alcoholic, is trying to hold it together while he reviews the incidents that led up to this cataclysmic event. Because all cell coverage has been lost, the group has no idea how widespread the infection is.

Just as some clues emerge, the book cuts to three years earlier, when Lyle’s troubles were beginning. They include his parting with his then-wife and dismissal from his teaching post.  We see him in action with medical students, one of whom is a tech researcher auditing his course. Then it’s back to Steamboat, and on to the current time, six months after the incidents at Steamboat occurred.

Richtel pieces his plot together adeptly, pulling in a lot of medical and tech data, along with a fair amount of psychology. Lyle and Eleanor, for instance, have a very high “situational awareness,” while the villain of the book thinks she has it, but has misinterpreted everyone’s motives. Her yearning to manage the cacophony around her has disastrous consequences, which result in a near-cataclysmic denouement.

There’s much to recommend this book, but some readers may balk at the clumsy writing. At one point, Richtel notes that “Lyle gritted his teeth in focus.” And at another, “An impulse lingered to scrape away the dead skin that he felt like covered every inch of him.” But then there are elegant phrases like “In the silence of a dead world, you could listen and be heard…. He appreciated its seduction.” And later, we’re told that “For a moment, the world watching, the fates swirled with indecision.” In the end, though, what makes DEAD ON ARRIVAL most appealing is that the issues it raises stay with the reader after the final page; it’s not just a good read, it’s a provocative one.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on August 4, 2017

Dead on Arrival
by Matt Richtel

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0062443275
  • ISBN-13: 9780062443274