Doing Harm by Kelly Parsons is a debut medical thriller about a Boston surgeon whose hospital and life are under threat from a serial killer. (available February 4, 2014).
Even without reading the author’s bio, you will know the novelist is a doctor from the very first scene as he casually inserts authentic-sounding details into his doctor/protagonist’s thoughts. This is what Dr. Steve Mitchell is thinking as his dying patient’s hand flops lifelessly:
“…Back in medical school, one of my anatomy instructors had pointed out to us how the hand is one of the most recognizably human parts of the human body; how, unlike the anonymous organs inhabiting the abdomen and chest, it can trigger instant recognition and empathy. To prove his point, he sawed a hand off one of the cadavers and passed it around the class, followed by the spleen of another.
He was right, of course. The hand creeped everyone out much more than the spleen, which was like a big, brown sponge left out to dry in the sun for too long.”
Later, Steve thinks about the music his boss Dr. Collier (a dead ringer for the middle-aged Charlton Heston) likes to crank in the operating room during surgery and wonders what patients would think if they could see him cutting into a kidney while humming “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Forget the details of the murders going around University Hospital, it’s details about the way things really work behind the scenes of a big hospital that give us the chills.
And that’s even before he gets into the details of that venerable surgical tradition, the Morbidity and Mortality Report, known informally as the “M and M.”
“In our department, it’s a formal conference held on the third Thursday of each month, in the evening. Part debriefing, part quality-improvement program, and part mea culpa, it’s a venue for individual surgeons to acknowledge their mistakes, the purpose of which is for the collective surgical community to discuss the complications, determine what went wrong, and try to prevent what went wrong from ever happening again. The cases are selected personally by Dr. Collier from the pool of complications that occur each month.”
Surgeons take complications very seriously, Steve assures us, and when it’s his turn to be grilled, he has to fight to keep from throwing up. And of course it doesn’t help that the “M and M” is always packed with spectators, professors, students and residents, and sometimes surgeons from other hospitals. It’s an event that wraps surgical schadenfreude in a layer of competitive self-correction that exposes weaknesses and lays insecurities bare. Ever wonder why doctors often come across as arrogant? After reading this book you’ll know that half the time, it’s just a pose. And you’ll also know that some of the time, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
Everyone’s going to blame me for this. I shake my head, as if to clear the thought away, repelled that it would even materialize in my brain. My career should be the last of my worries right now. But it gnaws at me. I can’t help but worry. I’ve worked too hard for too long, and it’s not fair, really. This shouldn’t be happening. This patient shouldn’t be dying.
It’s that “shouldn’t” that sticks in Steve’s craw and he’s just bloody-minded enough (he would say “stubborn”) to find out what’s really going on. And while he’s doing that, someone just as smart as he is—just as driven, just as stubborn—is working to pin the murders on him.
Parsons uses medical detail the way a CSI episode uses forensic detail, and as the story of what’s really happening at University Hospital begins to unfold, we get a glimpse of a world that patients rarely see…because it would scare them to death. This is Parsons’ first novel, and he’s as accomplished in the role as his protagonist is in the operating room, wielding words with a surgeon’s precision.
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Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles in an apartment where her TBR pile has its own bookcase. She writes dark fiction but has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, heroic fantasy, and horror novels where only bad people get killed. She is the author of the upcoming novel Misbegotten.