Rule of Existence
By Dan Spencer

Set during the perilous days of the 1918 influenza outbreak, “Rule of Existence” beings with a hero in well over his head, in an emergency ward overflowing with sick and dying patients. Dr. Burton Reinhardt is middle-aged, bull-headedly stubborn, and a not-terribly successful country doctor. He is also a civilian medical volunteer at Fort. Devins, but neither he nor his younger and better-trained colleagues can do anything to stem the flood of dying. The illness starts as a headache, fever, body-aches and with horrible swiftness, moves on to a bloody cough, pneumonia, coma and death. Healthy young men and women are dead within a day or two of first falling sick… and Doctor Reinhardt is himself succumbing to “la grippe”, as the terrible flu was first called.

At that very moment, he receives word that his wife, a suffragette has been arrested during a political protest in Washington and that his teenage daughter Addie is nowhere to be found. The Army medical authorities refuse permission for him to leave Ft. Devins even though he is only a civilian volunteer. Impulsively, he leaves anyway… and plunges into a nightmare of searching for his daughter while being pursued himself by an implacably Javert-like government agent. It seems that— although a civilian and a volunteer, Dr. Reinhardt is threatened with being shot as a deserter.

Rules of Existence moves very swiftly, in plunging a rather decent, thoughtful and well-established family man into a desperate “North-by-Northwest” situation, with every mans’ hand seemingly against him, as a result of an impulsive decision of his own in the midst of catastrophic events. The historical background of Philadelphia ravaged by a sudden epidemic is well-constructed, and the writer has made excellent use of recent non-fiction on the pandemic. Good use is also made of the detail that Dr. Reinhardt would have studied medicine under circumstances much less strict than they became under the auspices of the AMA… and so would have felt at a disadvantage in comparison to more recent MDs, and perhaps makes his career decision at the end of the book a little more understandable. And the detail of Dr. Reinhardt being a German-American, at a time when sudden suspicion fell upon such also adds to the nightmarish quality of his experience on the run.

The minor characters are economically and deftly drawn; exactly right for those whose appearance is somewhat fleeting, even those who were historical people. Some of the others, who had a little more of the story to carry could have been fleshed out a little more without bogging down the narrative, such as the sister-in-law, Mae and the best friend Oscar. Dr. Reinhardt’s relentless pursuer also had a disconcerting habit of suddenly turning up, without any clear indication of how he managed to track the doctor so closely. This adds to the nightmarish aspect, however, as does the number of seemingly kindly-inclined people who suddenly inform on him for no particular reason. The only other fault I note is that sometimes the dialogue seems a little more jarringly modern. Other than that, a good brisk read about a perilous time not too terribly long ago.

The Authors’ website is here, and Rule of Existence is also available from Amazon

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