One book ago I wrote about the problems facing the middle book in any trilogy. First books get to do all the expositional heavy lifting, introducing characters and building worlds. Third books move all the pieces into place for what will, with any luck, be a satisfying conclusion. Second books are sort of in limbo. They move the story along, but there isn’t necessarily a narrative expectation they need to fulfill that’s as clear-cut as a beginning or an ending. For that reason, second books run the risk of standing in place, throwing a lot of obstacles at characters without necessarily accomplishing much. This was a problem that hit the last book I read, Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City, especially hard. As I wrote in that review, a lot of stuff happened and none of it mattered. The characters traveled, some things happened to them, they overcame some challenges, and if the events of the last ten pages had been moved to the beginning of Book 3, nothing in Book 2 would have mattered at all.
Scott Sigler’s Contagious, on the other hand, demonstrates what second books can do in the right hands. Infected, the first book in his trilogy about a heretofore unknown disease, introduced the key players – CIA agent Dew Phillips; CDC doctor Margaret Montoya; Montoya’s CIA bodyguard, Clarence Otto; and “Scary” Perry Dawsey, a hulking ex-college football player who spent most of the first book dealing with his infection by employing various sharp objects on himself – and explored (often in gruesome detail) the truth about this new disease that first manifests itself in tiny blue triangles on victims’ skin before eventually hatching alien crawlers whose sole purpose is building a gateway that will welcome our alien overlords to the planet. At the end of the book the first gate is destroyed, Dawsey is in Montoya’s custody for research purposes, and it seems as though disaster has been averted.
Fast-forward four months. At the start of Contagious, Dawsey has escaped and is single-handedly executing anyone still infected with the disease. Phillips is tracking him down because Dawsey, as a byproduct of his cured infection, has sort of an extraterrestrial homing device embedded in his brain that both leads him to other infected and clues him in to where other gates may be built. This becomes especially important once the characters realize the intelligence behind the disease has figured out a way to mutate it in a crucial way that puts the entire planet at risk. (Before going any further, let me acknowledge how ridiculous this all sounds. Trust me that it makes sense in the world Sigler builds; any preposterousness is due to my poor attempt to encapsulate a 400-page book in a single paragraph.)
So how does Contagious succeed as a second book where Hollow City failed? First, and most important, it’s down to the characters. Rather than just have Dawsey go on a rampage a second time, Sigler very cannily moves him from the antagonist column in Book 1 to the protagonist column in Book 2. Phillips understands that Dawsey is more useful as an ally and guide, and the reluctant friendship that develops between the aging CIA agent and the headstrong former football player is one of the book’s high points. Montoya develops, too, gradually shedding the idealism and altruism she wore as a badge of honor throughout Infected and in the beginning of Contagious as she slowly comes to realize the hard truth of what it will take to cure the disease. Unlike Hollow City, where the characters seem to exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the various ordeals they endure, Contagious treats its characters as real people – and real people change in the face of adversity, often in unpleasant ways.
Another way Sigler has been smart with his second book is to take a page from cinema’s playbook. Like second movies, where filmmakers often take the conflict of the first movie and both recast and amplify it (think Terminator 2; think The Dark Knight), Sigler develops his overarching storyline by extending the capability of the disease – it isn’t about more people discovering they have the disease, it’s about the disease mutating in reaction to what happened in the first book. In Infected, the intelligence behind the disease placed all its money on Dawsey. When that falls through, it goes to Plan B in Contagious, infecting a young girl named Chelsea, who responds to the mutated infection in potentially world-ending ways. The story, then, becomes a race against time, as Phillips and his unexpected partner Dawsey attempt to track down Chelsea while the newly clear-eyed Montoya tries to work out a cure. It’s a logical extension of the events of the first book, and it goes beyond just throwing more obstacles in the characters’ path, which is really all that Hollow City boils down to. The movie influence comes across even more dramatically in the last fifty pages. As the book rushes toward its conclusion, the chapters shorten to cut between the various characters. The result is an almost palpable momentum, and it’s kind of exciting.
In Contagious, a lot happens and all of it matters. It’s crucial for story and for character. Like The Empire Strikes Back, the events are vital for understanding the arc of the entire series, and also like that movie, the ending is so bleak it makes me wonder where the series will go next. If Sigler’s writing is occasionally clunky – and it is, especially when his characters try to be clever and jokey; Elmore Leonard he isn’t – he compensates for it in mastery of plot and pacing. Contagious manages to be both a self-contained story that stands on its own merits and a satisfying extension of the world Sigler created in Infected.
Echobelly – Everyone’s Got One (1994)