The Red Lotus is another strong entry in the mystery / thriller genre from Chris Bohjalian. And this time, he chose an oddly prescient topic for a 2020 release. The story centers around Alexis Remnick, a New York City ER doctor. She’s on a bicycling trip to Vietnam with her boyfriend of six months, Austin Harper. He works in the same hospital as Alexis, but in the “development” area, which is better known as fundraising. He’s known as a sales guy who can convince anyone to buy. As we join the story, she waits poolside for Austin while he takes a solo ride to pay tribute to his dad and uncle who served in Vietnam. Alexis waits and waits. And he never returns.
Although the authorities consider his death an accident on the road, Alexis just can’t let go. Her medical training and persistent personality push her deeper into the possibilities. And Bohjalian tells parts of the story from her perspective. But we also learn other aspects of what happened from different characters. Bohjalian combines aspects of science, medicine, and good old-fashioned gumshoe detective work. As a result, he doles out the whodunit component in The Red Lotus more quickly than the “why-dun-it” plot line. And it’s here that the book becomes most chilling in 2020.
After watching a variety of Anthony Bourdain shows about the culture and food in Vietnam, I admit it sounds like an amazing place to visit. And Bohjalian makes it even more attractive. Well, mostly. There’s just this one thing that’s a holdover from war-era Agent Orange and napalm. And now in The Red Lotus’s world, evil people try to use the learned science for ill rather than for good.
At a busy time of year, I still carved out plenty of time to read this book. It pulled me in quickly. I found the twists legitimate and the characters compelling. I really only have one complaint—I thought some of the ER / hospital scenes and timelines were unrealistic. But overall, this story moves like a bicycle careening down a steep hill. You just have to hold tight to the handlebars and hope you don’t hit a rock, which would send you end over end.
Pair with another creative Bohjalian book, like The Flight Attendant. (BTW, we thought the HBO Max adaptation of this one was pretty good.) Or venture into something more about refugees from the Vietnam War, like The Sympathizer.