"Day of the Dandelion"
(Reviewed by Tony Ross JUN 7, 2007)
Veteran British journalist Pringle is probably best known for his last book, Food, Inc., which explores the role of biotechnology and multinational corporations in the global food chain. That topic is given a fictional quasi-thriller treatment here, as we meet 50ish Arthur Hemmings, expert botanist at Kew Gardens and undercover agent for the OFS (Office of Food Security, a fictional British government agency which does have a real-life American equivalent). When several packets of seeds are stolen from the safe of an eminent Oxford researcher, Hemmingsis put on the case by some typically noxious bureaucrats. Both the researcher and his assistant are missing, and it's possible the seeds may hold the key to "apomixis" -- a kind of Holy Grail of plant genetics that would allow hybrid plants to clone themselves. This would theoretically enable the stable production of uberhigh-yield genetically enhanced crops, and open up other possibilities, such as cost-effective biofuel. Soon, the researcher turns up dead, and Hemmings must consider a plethora of possible suspects, including the Russians, Chinese, CIA, and multinational food conglomerate Panrustica. As Hemmings explains several times, whomever decodes the apomixis process and is able to patent it will essentially be able to control the global food supply.
One of the story's minor flaws is that it's never explained how ownership of the apomixis process would lead directly to one nation or company controlling the world's food. Clearly it would enable a distinct competitive advantage, in terms of being able to make more raw materials at a lower cost, as well as being able to genetically engineer various plants as medicine delivery systems and the like. But there's already a good deal resistance in many parts of the world to genetically modified crops, and moreover, despite the WTO, it seems likely that a large part of the world wouldn't respect a patent with such a comprehensive monopolizing effect.
Nonetheless, Pringle does a good job at showing how the current international patent system could be abused in such a manner. One of the key plot elements is the dead researcher's desire to make the apomixis process "open source," so that the whole world could benefit.
More problematically, at least for a book that aspires to be a thriller, is that it's never all that thrilling. It's certainly very readable and enjoyable as a light entertainment, but Hemmings is never given much of a challenge. To be sure, he has to do a fair amount of sleuthing and running hither and yon (mainly London to Zurich and back), and there's a car chase and minor bar brawl. But he's always got old friends and expert pals who help him out with key resources, or is able to meet and charm helpful people (such as reporters and little old ladies) along the way. With his vintage sportscar, first-class airline travel, ultra-efficient female assistant, good physique for his age, and good-natured charm, he seems modeled to a large degree on the movie version of James Bond. Alas, unlike Bond, he is never given a true villain to battle. Early on, the reader is introduced to a particularly odious and cunning lawyer who seems destined to be his nemesis, but that character simply disappears, leaving Hemmings little in the way of opposition.
Again, this is not to say it's a bad or unenjoyable book, merely that it's lacking in certain elements that would make it much much stronger. The notion of a botanical supersleuth has possibilities, and Hemmings is a potentially interesting character, but he has it all too easy -- hopefully his next adventure to save the world will be a little more dangerous and thrilling.
- Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Day of the Dandelion at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Day of the Dandelion (May 2007)
- Cornered: Big Tobacco At the Bar of Justice (1998)
- Those Are Real Bullets: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972 (with Philip Jackson) (2001)
- Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto: The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest (2003)
- The Murder of Nickolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century (May 2008)
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- Guardian Unlimited article by Peter Pringle
- The Nation article by Peter Pringle on Bioterrorism
- Did the US start germ warfare? by Peter Pringle
- Chapter excerpt from Food, Inc.
- Washington Times review of Food, Inc.
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About the Author:
Peter Pringle is a veteran British foreign correspondent. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Nation. As an investigative journalist, in 1972 he was sent by the London Sunday Times to Northern Ireland to investigate Bloody Sunday and its aftermath and later wrote a book about it.
He lives in New York City with his wife, Eleanor Randolph, a New York Times editorial writer, and their daughter, Victoria.