The Cerberus Affair, by Charlotte Valentine [review]

The baseline plot of The Cerberus Affair is immediately attention-getting and quickly draws the reader into the mystery. Catherine, a beautiful but sexless single mother of an adopted son, is a former journalist. At the same time her son is getting ready to go off to university, Catherine’s world is rocked by the news of the sudden death of her closest friend, Adam. Adam, who works for the government health department, leaves a cryptic message in an email to Catherine, imploring her to investigate a sensitive matter that Adam was involved with in the case of his sudden death. Adam leaves Catherine a trove of documents implicating several large pharmaceutical companies in illegal payments, which will make a great story if Catherine decides to resume her journalism career. But, there’s even more to it than that.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Clayton, a research scientist working on ways to “silence” genes that cause genetically inherited diseases. He is particularly interested in finding a cure for Huntington’s disease, since he carries the gene that causes it. He is also on the verge of a breakthrough in gene “editing” that could eradicate the disease and many others. The research is funded by a small pharma company, but the gene editing concept is something that could make many drug therapies obsolete – and cost the big drug companies billions.

As Catherine investigates Adam’s death, she crosses paths with Clayton. Sparks immediately fly, and the story quickly becomes all about the Clayton/Catherine romance, including a very hot sex scene and a lot of lovey-dovey emotional exposition. But, at the same time, things are moving on the pharma/conspiracy plot, which threatens to imperil not only the budding romance, but the lives of Catherine and Clayton, along with their children.

This is a fascinating and complicated plot, which Ms. Valentine weaves together masterfully in the first half of the book. There are side characters who have roles of varying importance, but all the people are very authentic and interesting. There is the obligatory corporate villain and the corrupt politician, and there’s a unique twist that I won’t spoil, but which the author makes reasonably plausible. Once drawn into the characters and the story, the reader can’t help but get caught up in the intrigue and want to keep turning the pages to find out whether Adam’s death was really a murder, and whether Catherine and Clayton will avoid disaster – let alone keep the soulmates-at-first-sight romance going. It’s a book that’s hard to put down.

While the set-up is fantastic, the second half of the book, where the plot lines come together and the story unfolds, is not as tight as the set-up. There are several story lines that are ultimately irrelevant and one wonders what they are doing there other than filling space in what is already a plenty-long book. Perhaps they had some potential relevance earlier in the writing process, but they should have ended up on the editing room floor here. There are also several loose ends, even after the author attempts to tie up everything in an awkward epilogue. The thrilling climax is indeed a thrill, but like a Mission Impossible movie, it’s best not to think to hard about how things happened or you may start scratching your head about certain facts. But, if you’re bothered enough to go back and review those facts and try to piece together what was left hanging, then the book really did draw you in and make you care.

I’m not a big fan of the prologue that leaves the reader on the edge of a major moment, making the rest of the book something of a flashback leading back to the already-glimpsed opening sequence, but the author must have thought it was needed to heighten the tension. I disagree – there was plenty of tension and the story, beginning from Chapter 1, was plenty interesting to keep me reading without the prologue.

Ultimately, the flaws here are minor compared to all that’s positive. You get  what you want from a book – it makes you care and makes you want to find out what happens next. While, in the end, the story could have been tighter and the resolution more satisfying, it was certainly a ride worth taking. Kudos to Ms. Valentine.

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