In Darwin's Cipher, genetic research goes awry.

Ever since the mid-twentieth century geneticists and molecular biologists have been mucking around in the human genetic code. Medical researchers have been seeking ways to cure diseases or prevent them entirely. Others have been toying with techniques to heighten critical elements in our physiological or psychological makeup such as intelligence or strength. Yet other scientists envision altering human physiology to adapt us for life on other planets with dramatically different atmospheric conditions. Meanwhile, a code of ethics has been widely adopted among researchers to prevent missteps that might bring tragic consequences. However, sometimes . . . well, accidents happen. And this thoughtful and inventive novel explores one such fraught development when genetic research goes awry.

Dr. Juan Gutierrez, a brilliant medical researcher, is pursuing a novel line of inquiry for his employer, the pharmaceutical giant Agrimed Global. Despite belt-tightening at the company, the director of research protects his position because he sees promise in Juan’s unorthodox approach. And Juan has set his sights on nothing less than a genetic cure for cancer.

Darwin’s Cipher by M. A. Rothman (2019) 374 pages ★★★★☆

Early on, we know that genetic research has gone awry

Meanwhile, at a secret Air Force base in the Nevada desert, a wandering Marine is set upon and killed by a pair of enormous dogs. Somehow, the German Federal Intelligence Service is involved—and organizes a coverup of the murder. To investigate a vague report of the incident, veteran FBI Special Agent Nate Carrington is dispatched from his base at Quantico. Nate is a member of the “Evidence Response Team Unit, the world-renowned FBI forensics lab,” but he turns up nothing other than a list of unanswered questions.

Near the Air Force base an older couple, Frank and Megan O’Reilley, come across a huge Labrador retriever on their cattle ranch. Megan names the dog Jasper. She has fallen instantly in love with him. And so does their daughter Kathy, who returns home from Alaska after her fiancé has died a grisly death when their sailboat took shelter at a private island in the Pacific. After escaping with her life—and a $200,000 payment to keep her mouth shut about what she has seen on the island—Kathy wants nothing more than to hide and reexamine her life.

Genetic research goes awry

As the story unfolds, the lives of Juan, Nate, and Kathy will intersect in dramatic ways. And they will all become caught up in a race against time to prevent a looming catastrophe unleashed by the theft and misuse of Juan’s research.

About the author

M. A. (Michael) Rothman describes himself as “one of the most unlikely novelists you’ll ever meet.” He’s an engineer with a background in the sciences. He has written eight books.

For further reading

If you’re looking for a nonfiction treatment of genetics, see A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford (Debunking the popular myths about genetics).

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