One reason that crime fiction is so appealing to its fans is that very often, the stories center on contexts and situations that we all encounter. We can identify with the characters in a murder mystery if they’re in situations we’ve faced, and that can add to the suspense. One of those common experiences is getting involved with the medical profession. Almost all of us have been to a doctor or a dentist, and many of us have experiences at hospitals, too. These contexts can be especially suspenseful for a murder mystery, because most of us feel vulnerable when we’re at a hospital, dentist’s office or doctor’s office. We can understand the feelings of anxiety and suspense that victims in this setting must feel. There’s also very often a sense of urgency associated with the medical profession. Many people don’t go to a doctor, dentist or hospital unless there’s something wrong, and even those who visit the doctor or dentist regularly may have a sense of stress that’s almost as high as it would be if they were ill. So it’s no surprise that medical contexts play an important role in crime fiction.
Sometimes, the hospital is the setting for a mystery; with all of the emergencies that go on in hospitals, and with all of the opportunities for things to go horribly wrong, the hospital makes for a very suspenseful place for a mystery. Many people, for instance, are familiar with Robin Cook’s medical thrillers, which often take place in hospitals. In Terminal, for instance, medical student Sean Murphy takes an externship at the exclusive Forbes Cancer Center, and is asked to do some research on a synthesized antibody to a particular form of cancer. Murphy, however, is more interested in Forbes’ astoundingly high rate of cancer remission in patients with medullablastoma. Before long, he realizes that the hospital administrators are hiding some very dark and dangerous secrets about cancer and cancer treatment. Matters are only made worse when some of the patients at Forbes begin to die inexplicably. Now, Sean and his girlfriend, Janet Reardon, are in a race to find out what’s going on at Forbes before they become victims themselves.
Cook’s not the only author who uses the hospital context. We also see the hospital milieu in Michael Palmer’s thrillers. For example, The Second Opinion takes place mostly in Boston’s renowned Beaumont Clinic. Dr. Petros Sperelakis, an internationally renowned internal medicine specialist, and founder of the Sperelakis Center for Diagnostic Medicine at the Beaumont, is severely injured in a hit-and-run accident. His daughter, Dr. Thea Sperelakis, who’s been working with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), returns to Boston to help care for her father. As she and her brother, Dmitri, piece together what happened to their father, they become more and more convinced that he was deliberately struck. Petros Sperelakis is badly injured and in a coma, but he’s still able to communicate after a fashion, so he tries to let Thea know what happened and why he was victimized. Through her father, Thea learns of a terrifying secret: there’s deliberate medical fraud going on at the Beaumont, and those behind it will do anything to protect themselves. Thea gets a job at the clinic and goes undercover to find out the truth her father tried to reveal. She’s hampered by her other two siblings, who are eager to have their father’s life support removed. She’s also challenged by Asperger’s Syndrome. Nevertheless, she uses her phenomenal memory for and attention to detail to uncover the Beaumont’s secrets.
Even when a murder mystery doesn’t take place in a hospital, a medical context can add a layer of suspense. For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) Henry Morley, who’s Hercule Poirot’s dentist, is shot in his dental office. Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp is called in because it’s thought that the real target for the murder might have been Alistair Blunt, a wealthy and powerful banker who’s also a patient of Morley’s. Japp asks for Poirot’s help when he finds out that Poirot visited the dentist that morning, and together, they find out who shot Morley and why. What’s interesting about this novel is that in several places, Christie refers to people’s fear of going to the dentist. In fact, the beginning of the novel features several “snapshots” of Morley’s various patients – including Poirot – making up their minds to brave the dentist’s chair.
In fact, in more than one Christie murder mystery, it turns out that the killer is a medical professional. I won’t mention titles, so as not to spoil anyone’s fun. It’s interesting, though, to see how that anxiety about medical professionals – especially considering how much trust we must put in them – is reflected in her writing.
The medical professional isn’t always the “bad guy,” though, in crime fiction. In many novels it’s the medical professional who’s the sleuth. That’s true in Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil. In that novel, Patrick Selby is severely stung by wasps during a birthday party for his wife, Tasmin. At first, he seems to be recovering nicely, but a few days later, Selby dies. Initially, his death is put down to a severe allergic reaction to the wasps. Dr. Max Greenleaf, who attended the party and who tended Selby, isn’t so sure. He begins to investigate the death and finds out that the death was murder by poison.
Rebecca Tope’s Dark Undertakings also features a medical professional as the sleuth. Trainee undertaker Drew Slocombe is conflicted by the death of printer Jim Lapsford. Lapsford has apparently died of a massive heart attack, and Lapsford’s doctor, Dr. Lloyd, and Lapsford’s family are only too happy to accept that verdict. In fact, the coroner has issued a death certificate, and Lapsford’s cremation is only days away. Slocombe’s not convinced of the cause of death, though, because there are several signs that the death was not natural. For example, Lapsford’s dog, Cassie, suddenly dies the day after Lapsford does, after she licks her master’s face. Slocombe pushes for an inquest and uncovers evidence that Lapsford ‘s death was murder. There are plenty of suspects, too, as Lapsford was far from a faithful husband.
We also see medical professionals as sleuths in Robin Cook’s and Michael Palmer’s medical thrillers. In those novels, the sleuth is nearly always a medical examiner or a practicing doctor. Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun is also a medical sleuth. He’s Laos’ chief medical examiner and as such, he often encounters unusual death. When that happens, Dr. Siri’s job is to investigate the death(s) and find out what really happened. Sometimes, that investigation goes against what Dr. Siri’s superiors would like, but he is committed to finding out the truth.
Perhaps the most famous medical-professional-turned-sleuth (and one of the first) is Sherlock Holmes’ friend and partner, Dr. Watson. When the two first meet in A Study in Scarlet, Watson’s just returned from Afghanistan in poor health, and is eager for a rest. He’s intrigued by Holmes, though, and before he knows it, he’s caught up in the mysteries that Holmes solves. Although it’s Holmes who puts together the clues in their sleuthing, Watson is neither helpless nor stupid. He frequently contributes medical clues, and Holmes respects him for it.
Crime fiction really has an interesting duality of perspectives when it comes to medical practitioners. In many novels, they’re sleuths. Even in novels where they’re not sleuths, medical practitioners often provide the sleuth with useful clues. At the same time, there’s an entire subgenre – the medical thriller – in which doctors are often responsible for murder. Perhaps that duality comes because of doctors’ specialized knowledge, or because many of us feel particularly vulnerable when we’re in a medical office. Whatever the reason, the role of the medical professional can add interest and suspense to a well-written plot.
Do you enjoy novels that feature the medical field? Or do you see them as either too technical or too implausible?