The paper is mightier than the sword

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Today - a complete science fiction yarn for our hypochondriac times!

Today - a complete science fiction yarn for our hypochondriac times!

Once upon a time, there was a man called Rolf Zedqvist. It wasn't his real name - he had picked it up during a drunken Scrabble evening - but it served him very well, especially as a nom de plume for a column he wrote for that well-known paper, the Sunday Ordure.

It was a book advice column. People wrote to him with queries about books they wanted to get, books they couldn't remember the author of, books which had been handed down to them through generations and which might be worth a fortune. (They never were.) All the problems that Rolf could solve, he dealt with deftly. The tricky ones were returned with a note saying: "Much as Mr Zedqvist would have liked to answer your question, space, alas, does not permit ..."

One day, Rolf Zedqvist received a query about books which he had never had before, and which took him aback. "Dear Mr Zedqvist," the letter said, "Is it possible to catch diseases from books? Not from new books, but I am sure that old books, library books especially, have been through so many hands, that the chances of some germ harbouring itself therein, and infecting you, must be great. In the case of antiquarian books, it might be a disease long thought extinct!"

Zedqvist snorted. What a loopy idea. "Dear reader," he wrote in his column. "I think that if second-hand books transmitted diseases, we would know about it by now. No, I cannot see any chance of it happening. In any case, by the time most second-hand books change hands, any germs lurking within must have given up the ghost!"

And yet when Zedqvist sat down to write his next novel, this idea kept coming back to haunt him, and he found himself writing a sort of thriller whose plot involved a string of deaths. The police suspected a serial killer, but there seemed to be no common thread. Then it was discovered that all the victims had one thing in common. They had all read the same book shortly before their death, a novel which had won the Booker Prize. Was it possible that one of the runners-up had nursed a revenge plot to kill everyone who had bought the winner? Or was there a way of concealing some death-dealing agent in the very pages of a book?

While Zedqvist was wrestling with the twists and turns of the plot, he received another letter in his capacity as the book problem-solver of the Sunday Ordure.

"Dear Mr Zedqvist," it said. "You told us in your column that it was impossible to catch a disease from a book. You must have known that you were telling a lie. It is quite possible to catch something lethal from a book. Indeed, it is quite possible to catch something fatal from a letter. From this letter, for instance. You might be interested to know that I have recently written letters very similar to this one to the Earl of Zutland, to the pop singer Sultana, to the politician Sir Lemuel Boot, and to the famous footballer Donaldini..."

Something in Zedqvist's memory stirred ... The Earl of Zutland ... That was right! The Earl had recently died at the wheel of his 4x4, while taking his children to school, though his heir had survived. And Sultana, of course, had died of cause or causes unknown. And Boot had died last month, and Donaldini, although apparently match fit ...

Zedqvist let the letter drop from his hand in horror. All these people had been killed by a letter! And this one was a killer letter too! He looked at it. Might it have already infected him? Might, even now, some supervirus be racing through his veins?

A reader writes: Dear Mr Kington, I am writing this letter to ask if there is any truth in this or whether it is a load of old baloney.

Miles Kington says: Aaagh! You horrible reader! Get that letter away from me! Don't touch me! Get your vile stinking germs away from me! Oh, my God, fetch a doctor ...