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BOOK REVIEW : A Robin Cook Novel That Just Won’t Fly : VITAL SIGNS, <i> by Robin Cook</i> . Putnam. $21.95, 394 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I never want it said that I don’t love “airplane literature.” I do! What the world needs, as much as fluorescent lights, or elastic waistbands on skirts, or really excellent french fries, is splendid airplane literature (otherwise known as post-operative literature)--the kind where, when you pick up the book, all turbulence falls away, all fear of pain disappears and death itself seems a pale mirage.

Every few months or so, I write these reviews on a plane, as I do this moment. Across the aisle, a woman is reading Sidney Sheldon’s “Memories of Midnight.” She is one lucky woman. I flew into this place reading Robin Cook’s “Vital Signs,” and will fly out of this place writing the review.

If I ever catch this doctor-writer Cook on solid ground, he’s going to have plenty to answer for. “Vital Signs” is as dreary as a game show, as unthrilling as the last car chase you saw on TV, as wretched as the kid two seats back from me, screaming and throwing up. I need hardship pay for this one.

Here’s the story: Dr. Marissa Blumenthal, a feisty pediatrician, has just married a four-star jerk named Robert who whines incessantly about money. (Robert is so awful that an ordinary woman would never go out with him more than once, but the author wants Marissa married to him, so, OK. Marissa desperately wants a baby by this subhuman specimen, so, OK.) She goes to a private woman’s clinic, whose records are totally confidential, because she doesn’t want any other doctors gossiping about her personal medical condition. With nothing wrong with her yet, Marissa goes in for a “routine” medical procedure, where a mysterious Asian pokes a foot-long needle far into her reproductive organs.

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OK, OK! This is, after all, Robin Cook: medical porn is his metier. But all that anyone ever really wants in these “popular” novels is escape, blessed escape, and with those foot-long needles, escape is out of the question. The reader is imprisoned with dreadful prose, horrible bickering characters, and a lot of stuff about a kind of tuberculosis not often found in the modern world, but turning up pretty often in the fallopian tubes of upper-middle-class women who have come into these “confidential clinics” first for routine female problems and then finally for in-vitro fertilization. Generally speaking, these women have success after about eight or 10 tries.

There comes a moment in this book where you just throw up your hands. We’re talking a Pacific Rim heroin-smuggling cartel, whose members sterilize innocent American women with “barefoot doctors” recruited from the People’s Republic of China, just as a sideline.

Marissa gets wind of all this, journeys to Australia, where the headquarters of this dastardly headquarters is reputed to be. (By this time her own fallopian tubes have been trashed, so she has nothing to lose when she befriends Tristram, a handsome, Outback pilot/doctor who has already been cursed by the aforementioned cartel.) They begin a chase after these Pacific Rim villains.

And everything changes! Marissa’s girlfriend, Wendy, is gutted by sharks in the Great Barrier Reef. Tristram and Marissa check into Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel . . . without any trouble! (This checking in to hotels without trouble happens three separate times in this exciting novel.)

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Also, at least three times, Asian villains “melt into the crowd.” They don’t “disappear,” they don’t “run,” they don’t “scramble”; they “melt,” every time .

You could describe this, then, as a melt-and-check-in novel.

The medical problem is far-fetched. The slur on the People’s Republic is uncalled for. The search for the drug triads is boring beyond words.

This isn’t at all a question of “popular” versus “literary” fiction.

From the grave, Louis L’Amour keeps sending his readers wonderful stuff.

Sidney Sheldon, whether you admit to reading him or not, is marvelous when your marriage is falling apart, or your appendix ruptures, or the wind shear is acting up just as your plane comes in for a landing.

Jacqueline Briskin weaves her carefully researched novels with as many perfect threads as a beautifully worked Oriental rug.

Dr. Richard Selzer, our other medical literary man, is a genius with language.

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And Judith Krantz works and works to obtain the effects of her hard-earned glitz.

What is it with this Robin Cook?

Lazy is the word that most accurately describes his prose. His career today is totally assured. But that doesn’t mean we have to read him--in the air, or on the ground.

Next: Bettyann Kevles reviews “The Invisible Invaders” by Peter Radetsky (Little Brown).


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