Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hospital of Death: Patients' Worst Nightmares, Come to Life

No one likes going to the hospital... not as a visitor, and certainly not as a patient. Could there be a scarier, more vulnerable position to be in, than spending time on an uncomfortable bed in a strange, sterile room, clad only in a skimpy gown that flaps open in the back... anxiously awaiting tests, treatments, or (gulp) surgery? 

That last is, I think, the absolute worst of the worst... “going under the knife”. (Who in their right minds would want to find themselves under a sharp-pointy-stabby thing?!)

Consider the near-absolute power which surgeons wield... armed with their scalpels (and all those other scary-looking things that grab, grip, swab, cut, and so on); surrounded by an array of ridiculously-expensive, beeping and humming machines; and aided by a number of other individuals, each with her or his own job to do (or not); all crammed into one small operating room, with your naked body lying helpless on the cold hard table... and your life in their hands.

The hope, of course, is that everything goes right, and your condition or problem improves... but the reality is, so many things can go very, horribly wrong.

Welcome to Boston’s prestigious University Hospital, where chief resident Steve Mitchell--a hotshot young surgeon with talent (and confidence) to spare--goes from thinking the world is his oyster... to discovering it’s the end of the world as he knows it, in newcomer Kelly Parsons’ top-notch medical thriller, Doing Harm.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but Dr. Steve Mitchell has finally--almost--arrived. As a chief resident he now has a pair of budding young doctors under his guidance (meaning he can shunt off the scut work to them), which in turn allows him to focus on honing his surgical skills. Even better, it looks like the hospital--the creme de la creme of teaching hospitals--is seriously considering offering him a permanent position... provided he keeps cruising along the same path during the next year. 

His home life is pretty great, too; he has a wife he adores, and two small daughters who bring him endless joy. And, with the likelihood of the coveted new job in the offing, he can envision moving out of their tiny house into a place with a little more room for a growing family. 

But then--just like that--everything changes. Following a drug mix-up during a routine surgery, the patient develops one after another increasingly-serious complications, leaving him hovering on the brink of death. 

And then, to make matters worse, it happens again. Another surgery--one in which Steve is called in to assist a senior surgeon--goes bad in a big way, as Steve’s cockiness gets him in over his head, and another patient nearly dies on the table. 

With two patients “circling the drain”--and Steve getting blamed in both instances--his job prospects (and all thoughts of a happy future) are looking less promising by the minute. He haunts his patients‘ bedsides in his free time, endlessly playing back every moment of both surgeries in his mind, wondering how things got to this point. 

Gradually, there’s a little improvement, and he dares to hope everything will work out... which is when one of them mysteriously, suddenly dies, and Steve’s world comes crashing down once more.

When he emerges from his funk (drunken stupor), though, and has time (since his surgical duties and resident responsibilities were put on an indefinite hold by the hospital) to think again, one thing is clear to him: there’s no way his patient--who’d been getting markedly better--could’ve just died... not without some help. As impossible as it sounds, he realizes the facts are telling him there’s a cold-blooded murderer walking the halls of the hospital. And, whoever it is, is almost sure to murder again.

Steve doesn’t know if he’ll have a career--or even a family, if it comes to that--once the dust has settled... but he knows he has to stop the killer before another innocent patient--someone who went into the hospital full of natural trepidation as well as realistic hope--needlessly dies. 

He can only hope he’s up to the task.

There’ve been a lot of good medical thrillers over the years, mostly full of earnest young doctors fighting against some horrible wrong--a formula which Doing Harm also follows. What sets this one apart for me, though, is Parsons‘ attention to realism... not just the technical terms for things--which are easy enough for any writer with the right background (or some research) to include--but in the sense of telling us who these people--the doctors, surgeons, medical students, nurses, and other support staff--actually are... what they think and how they feel (and why), and what they go through.

(An example? I didn’t always like Steve--particularly when he was being a smug, cocksure jerk [who didn’t even see--let alone care about--his patients as real people with lives outside the hospital]... yet I grew to understand why a certain amount of that attitude might be beneficial, or even necessary. It feels like a very honest portrayal.)

It’s when adversity comes along--when the hero is beaten down, forced to either sink or rise out of the ashes a better, stronger person--that most good stories provide the reader with the pay-off, and so does Doing Harm. The very ordinariness of the setting is gripping; the “why” behind the murder(s) is compelling; and the little twists and surprises are, frankly, pretty terrifying. 

I won’t forget Doing Harm any time soon. I doubt you will, either.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Worthy of Caterwauling into the Wee Hours of the Night

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Life and Death Behind the Robe

I’ll never be a trial lawyer, yet have a fair idea of what they go through (no doubt seeing as it’s well-trod ground in countless books, shows, and movies). I haven’t had jury duty, but have no trouble putting myself in a jurist’s shoes. And, although I’ve never been (nor ever will be, knock on wood) the defendant in a court case, it’s easy enough to imagine how awfully fraught that situation must be. 

Being the judge, though--the mysterious, all-powerful figure who sports those flowing robes and rules like royalty in his/her courtroom--well, picturing just what that’s like is another matter. Until now, that is. Enter newcomer Michael Ponsor into the fray of legal thrillers with his stellar debut, The Hanging Judge.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

It’s just another ordinary morning in an urban neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts... until, that is, a drive-by shooting leaves a drug dealer and an innocent bystander--a nurse on her way to put in a shift at the lower-income clinic she volunteered at--dead, on opposite sides of the street. 

An off-duty officer gives chase, eventually apprehending the driver--an underage kid; the shooter had already bailed out somewhere else. After some questioning down at the station, though, the kid gives up the shooter: a fellow gang member (and ex-con) who goes by the street name “Moon” Hudson.

A warrant is issued for his arrest, and Moon is taken into custody in his own home early the next morning, in front of his wife and howling baby daughter. To his apparent surprise--and his wife’s obvious shock--a stash of drugs is also found, in the basement. Things don’t look good for Mr. Hudson.

Things look far worse, however, once the case gets political. The powers-that-be (including an influential relative of the slain nurse) are calling for heads to (more-or-less-literally) roll--Moon’s sizable melon, to be precise--but there’s just one small catch: Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty. So, the US attorney does some finagling, and the case is taken out of the state’s hands and placed squarely into the realm of the federal court (which does allow for penalties with the most final of punishments). 

Judge David Norcross--with only two years on the bench under his judicial belt--is the one “lucky” enough to catch the case... along with all the public outcry and political urging to see the guilty party get the needle. Unfortunately, Judge Norcross is sort of conflicted on the whole idea of the death sentence, and none too happy at the pressure being applied from all sides.

Of course, the outcome of any case is dependent upon a great many people... such as the chain-smoking, seen-it-all defense attorney with decades of experience (who actually sort of believes in his client’s innocence); the elegant, driven, female prosecutor (under enormous pressure to get a guilty verdict); the prosecution’s witnesses (from the sweating, beat-up cop who was first on the scene, to the shifty kid who acted as driver, to a storeowner who saw the shooter run by his establishment); the victim’s family (the nurse’s husband and three sons, each feeling sadness, anger, and/or bitterness over the crime); the defendant’s wife (who claims her husband was home at the time of the shooting); and the defendant, himself (sitting at the defense table, trying to marshal his emotions and expressions into something not-so-guilty-looking). 

Interspersed throughout the story are a series of interesting little asides, which depict a murder trial in colonial Massachusetts (and allow the reader see how far our legal system has come, in the interim). This side story--which also ties in with the author’s own tale--is a fascinating bit of history, and a nifty little bonus.  

With twists and turns galore--including a budding romance, assorted threats, missing persons, and so much more--it’s a bumpy, exhilarating ride to the final verdict.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

It’s been a long time since I read a really good legal thriller--heck, even a not-so-great one, for that matter--something which dawned on me only a few short pages into The Hanging Judge. (But don’t worry; this one falls squarely under the “really, really good” column.) Better yet, it’s not just a compelling story with interesting characters and a fresh point of view--experiencing everything through the eyes of the judge, from his courtroom to his chambers to his home and personal life--but is a fully-fleshed-out tale, with due attention paid to all the characters, so that each feels like a real person (with believable emotions and motivations).

As it happens, there’s an excellent reason (aside from sheer talent) why The Hanging Judge feels so true-to-life: author Ponsor is, himself, a former trial attorney and magistrate judge, and has been serving as a US district judge for more than a decade. (Fortunately for us, he also happens to be a very clever man with a wonderful feeling for timing, a great sense of humor, and an easy and elegant mastery of words.)

In short, The Hanging Judge is a page-turner I don’t think you’ll want to miss. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Totally Worth It!