Thrillers have a long, honored tradition of turning germs into monsters. But from Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain on up, such novels have speculated about microorganisms in a way that pales compared to the monstrosities that humans inflict on each other — especially when faced with the threat of lethal infection, one of the most primal fears we have. Dana I. Wolff — also known as mystery author J.E. Fishman — toys with this dynamic in his new novel The Prisoner of Hell Gate. In it, Wolff dredges up the specter of one of the 20th century's most infamous carriers, Mary "Typhoid Mary" Mallon, giving new context to a medical case that's haunted U.S. history for a century.
In real life, George A. Soper was the researcher whose dogged investigation of Mary Mallon in 1907 led to her years-long quarantine on New York's North Brother Island. In Prisoner, Karalee Soper is George's great-granddaughter, a graduate student well on her way to becoming a public health scientist herself. The story takes place in 1982; Karalee and four of her grad-school friends take a drug-fueled cruise in the East River, only to wreck their boat in the area known as Hell Gate — specifically on North Brother Island, the abandoned locale of Mary's incarceration. As Karalee and her friends try to find a way off the island, a disheveled woman named Mary who lives alone on the island offers them food and shelter in the ruins of the notorious Riverside Hospital.
Being students of public health, Karalee and her crew are fascinated by the coincidence that this woman's name is Mary — although she appears to be in her fifties, whereas Mallon, where she somehow still alive, would be over a hundred. But reality seems to have a different set of rules on North Brother Island, where the dead linger and decay reigns. In chapters that alternate between Karalee's and Mary's points-of-view, Mary becomes a deeply engrossing — and deliciously unreliable — narrator. When members of the stranded party start to go missing, Karalee is confronted with the legacy of her great-grandfather's merciless crusade to stop typhoid fever, no matter the cost. And Mary's secrets, incubated in solitude for so long, begin to reveal themselves.
Prisoner has its strengths, and almost all of them lie in the character of Mary. Wolff gives Mary's internal monologue a poetic, almost Shakespearean voice that's gloomy and atmospheric, and her ruminations about the past — including the real-life naval disaster involving the steamship the General Slocum in 1904, just off North Brother Island's shore — are enthralling. Karalee, not so much. Her and her friends are shallow, stock characters straight out of a slasher flick, and Wolff's ultimate revelation about Karalee — and why she feels an uncanny empathy for this strange woman, even as horror descends on the island — is about as hokey as it gets. The book's biggest crime, though, is its ending, a slapdash head-scratcher of a climax that feels rushed at best, a deficit of imagination at worst.
To its credit, Prisoner is a swift, fun read for most of its brief length. And the looming question about Typhoid Mary — was she a villain, a victim, or something more complex? — is handled with eerie grace. Wolff, however, misses a rich opportunity to draw parallels between America's less-than-admirable history with public health policy and contemporary pandemic scares that still resonate. Rather than getting under the reader's skin and tapping into that rich vein of collective anxiety, Prisoner breezes right past it.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.