Operation Wormwood, by Helen C. Escott

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Helen C. Escott and Flanker Press Limited for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After being approached by the author to read this novel, I was curious. It was only when I read that it was set in Canada that I knew I had to give this—and a Canadian author—a try, in hopes that it would prove to be a successful undertaking. Escott offers up a gripping story, set in the capital city of Canada easternmost province, Newfoundland and Labrador. When the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the province is admitted to the hospital with a handful of symptoms, Dr. Luke Gillespie is baffled as to what it might be. A bleeding nose that comes from nowhere and cannot be stopped, extreme pain, and a sensation that the taste of water is extremely bitter, to mention only a few of these random symptoms. After running a number of tests, Dr. Gillespie discounts all of the expected diagnoses that seem to fit, which only causes him to become more befuddled. When Sergeant Nicholas Myra of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary arrives to interview the Archbishop, Gillespie is brought in on a theory the police have been floating, that this illness is isolated to those who have committed a form of pedophilia. More patients soon arrive with similar symptoms, leading Gillespie to wonder if there is an epidemic around St. John’s and if Myra’s theory might have merit. Soon, it becomes clear that this epidemic stretches outside of St. John’s and may have cases all across Canada, something an eager priest wants to share through media sources. It would seem that some of those who are afflicted know one another and call this ‘disease’ Wormwood, from a passage in the Book of Revelations. Digging deeper along the medical and legal angles, Gillespie and Myra work to ascertain how only certain individuals are being targeted and who might be behind this Wormwood, human or otherwise. Time is running out, though some may be just as happy to let nature take its course in a cruel form of survival of the worthiest. Escott pens this wonderful thriller with all the needed ingredients to hook the reader from the opening pages. Highly recommended for those who love a mix of legal and medical thrillers with a religious flavouring to keep the suspense at its most intense.

As Escott admits in her dedication, this work was a decade in the making, leaving me to believe that she spent much time honing her skills in an attempt to provide the reader with the best possible product. She surpasses many of my expectations for this novel and has me very excited to share this piece with other eager readers. Readers are able to learn much about both protagonists, Luke Gillespie and Nicholas Myra throughout this novel, as their backstories are developed effectively throughout the narrative. Coming from completely different backgrounds, both men bring different skills to the table that help propel the story forward and provide the reader with much insight as their character development thickens with each passing page. The handful of other characters offer pieces necessary to move the story forward, particularly some of the darker aspects of the story that the reader will discover upon taking the time to enjoy this novel. Escott builds these characters effectively and pulls no punches with their flaws, which only helps enhance an already strong narrative. The story itself is powerful, mixing the law and religion’s hold over the masses, as well as how to handle those who have committed grievous sin, such as pedophilia. There is much made not only of the abuse of children, but also the decades-old taint the Church has had in relation to this. Additionally, Escott brings in a discussion of Indigenous populations and the abuse they suffered, only to have their pleas ignored as not being credible. The reader need not worry about Catholic inculcation, though the biblical references are important to better understand some of the key arguments and stereotypical sentiments lobbied at the Church. Escott knows how to push without shoving and discuss without preaching, leaving a larger cross-section of readers willing to give this novel a try. I’m sure to pass this title along to anyone who is looking for a strong piece of Canadian fiction that can be digested in short order.

Kudos, Madam Escott, for a wonderful piece. I hope you have more novel ideas in the works, for I am ready to queue up to read whatever else you have on offer.

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