In the hands of an accomplished writer like Conant, this real-life scenario — and resulting disaster — offers great, if awful, promise ... But bumping up against the stranger-than-fiction dictum is another that is the bane of nonfiction writers everywhere: Truth often takes disappointing turns. In real life, otherwise fascinating people have a bad habit of dying or retiring or leaving on a business trip just before big stuff happens. In other cases, the discovery or invention for which someone is known is found to not be as groundbreaking as first imagined, or the person turns out to be a bit player in the great drama of the day, not the lead. It seems that an amalgam of these real-life pitfalls confronted Conant in the telling of her tale, and the effect is a discursive and oddly bifurcated book ... As intriguing as all this might sound, the telling is hobbled in several fundamental ways. Rather than employ her material to illuminate or support her narrative, Conant has a habit of allowing that material to dictate it. A chief example early on is Alexander’s unpublished autobiography, cited at least 25 times in the first chapter alone. Thus, after a quick and vivid description of the Bari attack, and an economical rendering of the doctor’s early years, readers are given an extended tour of Alexander’s prior wartime assignments and transfers...when what most readers will want is to get back to the hellscape of Bari ... Unfortunately, this return is marked by an overreliance on a new set of reference materials. Drawing from Alexander’s preliminary reports as he sets about his Bari investigations, Conant tells us countless times that Alexander suspects mustard gas to be the unknown killer long after we have already intuited this. Pulled from other documents is a litany of medical terms that are poorly defined and may leave lay readers at sea ... Of course, much of this profusion of ancillary detail could be excused, even justified, if the life of Stewart Alexander and his pioneering work on cancer were the book’s through-line. It is not. Instead, at war’s end, Alexander turns down an offer to join a cancer research institute in favor of returning to his family medical practice in New Jersey. As a result, the last third of The Great Secret is then handed off to a wholly different character ... despite the extraordinary circumstances in which it occurred, his contribution to the field of cancer research was quite limited ... In much of her work, Conant has traveled that fascinating and murky landscape where science, medicine and war intersect. While The Great Secret also resides on this terrain, readers are apt to find more reward in her previous books.
Ms. Conant tends to go on tangents, which distracts from an otherwise compelling narrative, and the book has rather too much medical jargon for the lay reader. But she never wavers from her central thesis: that the Bari victims were unconscionably harmed by a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation among American and British officials, all the way up to Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower ... another reminder of how cold the calculations of World War II were and of how many were sacrificed in the pursuit of a victory for which any alternative was unthinkable ... Ms. Conant ultimately shifts gears to the postwar medical research—at what is now Memorial Sloan Kettering and other institutions—that led to a generation of cancer drugs. The research saga has been covered in other works, notably Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), but she does a creditable job of pulling the highlights together and keeping her focus on the less-celebrated figures who came out of the chemical-warfare complex.