Southern Medical Mysteries
by Darden North, MD
Originally published on Jean Henry Mead's Mysterious People O4/2009
“So, you write medical mysteries?” the lady recently asked.
Forget that I was inside on that beautiful spring weekend, oblivious to the nice weather, helping a Junior League organization in a nearby city raise funds for its many philanthropies. Of course, many of my doctor buddies (that is, the other ones not on call for my ob/gyn practice) were playing golf, turkey hunting, or vacationing on the beach with their families. Several years ago, I decided that my diversionary, non-physician talent resonated in writing fiction, novels in particular, so I gave up golf and left the frequent hunting trips to my son, although I still like trips to the beach. I guess the wisdom of focusing that talent in a literary direction remains in the hands and eyes of such inquisitive readers as the one at that book signing.
In response to her question, I smiled, briefly discussed the plots of my three novels, and chose not to correct the curious woman, particularly since she was quick to purchase an autographed copy of my latest novel, Fresh Frozen. Had I delved further into the inquiry, I might have explained that the term medical mystery involves non-fiction, chasing the cause or cure of a rare disease or the debate over a controversial scientific theory or medical treatment. Instead, most readers and critics refer to my novels set in the South as medical thrillers, although the plots which include characters pitched into medical situations are laced with the whodunits of mysteries.
It was that spring inquiry that led me to write this article, an attempt to self-analyze or classify my true genre as an author. To accomplish this introspective goal, I must first lapse to my primary profession (that is, the one that is still paying the mortgage, educating our children, and keeping the refrigerator stocked: my twenty-plus year career as a board-certified physician). As a full-time obstetrician-gynecologist, I deal in the reality of concrete definitions, rules, and protocol with a personal bedside manner (pleasant, or good, I’m told) thrown into the mix. Webster defines a thriller as “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.”
While my first novel House Call does involve a bumbling, small town police force and its efforts to solve a mysterious murder, the actions of a psychotic killer are intricate in the story meant to thrill and race the pulse. The suspense builds as Knox Chamblee, MD, must thwart the efforts of his monstrous, female nemesis, Dr. Aslyn Hawes, even while he performs heroic surgery to save lives. Next, there is handsome Jimmy Perry, an emergency medical technician in-training, who must overcome a conniving male hospital administrator during a contrived attempt at seduction in a hunting camp. And then there is Madelyn, the widow of a senior doctor who fights the demonic effects of an experimental drug. True, the setting of House Call is not on another planet or in a foreign country, but the characters are still threatened by villains attacking them from within and/or without. Those villains must be defeated. (By the novel’s conclusion, some of the players never realize that they have actually won.)
In my second thriller, Points of Origin, the hero faced with defeating the villain is Drew Foxworth, the young adult son of a doomed plastic surgeon. The scoundrel that Foxworth and others face is actually the human soul, warped in the desire to reap more than is, or should be, attainable. That soul is obsessed with a need to inflict more punishment than is necessary, basing its verdict purely on emotion, casting reason aside. The climax of the novel is reached when Foxworth believes that he has defeated the dastardly attorney who has destroyed his family.
My newest and third novel, Fresh Frozen, sets a more ominous tone while exploring a controversial topic. In this medical thriller, the contemporary plot exposes the retail market for frozen human eggs and embryos. The first villain, Tinker Murtagh, is found scheming to steal a Hollywood celebrity’s frozen embryos, and as the tension builds, the reader discovers that an assortment of villains shares similar objectives. All of them want the embryos of international superstar Allyn Saxton. Of my three novels to date, I suppose that Fresh Frozen can be compared best to the medical thrillers of author Robin Cook, whose Coma made the bestseller list a status quo for that physician ... certainly an enviable position.
Actually, the classification of a novel’s genre is most important, I suppose, when trying to catalogue it for book sales or when introducing oneself as an author to a stranger. Of course, I still receive a blank stare sometimes from potential readers, but not as much as before. Like a physician who appreciates the fact that his patients keep coming back year-after-year to see him for medical care, I am increasing grateful that there are now fiction fans seeking me out for my next suspenseful mystery or medical thriller or whatever my genre label.
--- Darden North