Top Ten Medical Mysteries


I had my own bout with medicine in 2007 when I had six strokes, brain surgery, and a coma. The result was Brain Storm, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. It took me nearly four years to recover, so it’s thoroughly researched.

When The Strand Magazine asked for ten medical mysteries, I thought of Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, and Michael Crichton. These three dominate the subgenre, and their novels multiplied like a cold in a kindergarten. I enjoy their books, but after a while, the intrepid but flawed doctors, the beautiful young researchers (aren’t any average-looking women interested in science?), the greedy co-conspirators, and evil corporations went from tropes to caricatures. I had a devil of a time coming up with seven more medical mysteries, but here they are:


(1) Coma by Robin Cook

Coma by Robin Cook  Dr. Cook’s first novel popularized the medical subgenre and scared the bejesus out of readers. It made one heck of a movie, too. The 1977 book cover is the creepiest—the naked body suspended by wires. Coma is a typical Cook setup: In Boston’s largest hospital, something goes mysteriously haywire for two patients during routine surgery, and they wind up in comas. An intrepid young woman investigates the two cases, fighting her colleagues and the medical establishment. What she discovers is every patient’s nightmare. Cook’s writing can be clumsy and his plots may strain credulity, but Coma left a lasting impression on medical mystery lovers.


(2) Harvest by Tess Gerritsen

Gerritsen follows the Cook template in Harvest: Resident Dr. Abby Matteo, new to the elite cardiac transplant team at Boston’s Bayside Hospital, discovers the donor transplant system is a fraud. Abby launches her own investigation.


(3) The Sisterhood by Michael Palmer

Do not read The Sisterhood before you go to the hospital. This secret society of mercy-killing nurses at a Boston hospital will scare the stuffing out of you. (And what is it about Boston and medical mysteries?) Palmer’s medical thrillers are often formulaic but so much fun to read I overlooked the clunky writing. The man knows how to tell a story.


(4) The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

An American satellite chock-full of alien organisms crash-lands in Arizona. Soon, the nearby town of Piedmont is littered with dead bodies. Crichton’s sci-fi medical mystery is a good yarn, despite some clumsy writing. In addition to the blockbuster Jurassic Park, Crichton’s books have spawned many movies and TV dramas. He also created the TV series ER.


(5) Most Wanted by Lisa Scottoline

Scottoline explores this emotionally charged question: What if the biological father of your child is a killer? In Most Wanted, Christine Nilsson and her husband desperately try—and fail—to have a baby, then use a sperm donor. Christine is happily pregnant until she discovers she may be carrying a killer’s baby. Should she keep the child?

Top Ten Medical Mysteries

(6) Nerve Damage by Tom Combs

This medical thriller gives you even more reasons to hate Big Pharma. Dr. Drake Cody is an emergency room doctor whose experimental drug may help paralyzed people walk again—unless Big Pharma stops him. The book promises, and delivers, a juicy read. Drake, his wife, and their two children are all in danger as the fearless doctor fights the renegade agents of Big Pharma. The award-winning Dr. Combs does a good job of simplifying medical complexities.


(7) A Man to Die For by Eileen Dreyer

Eileen Dreyer was a trauma nurse for sixteen years, and her character, St. Louis trauma nurse Casey McDonough, feels authentic. Casey doesn’t trust the hospital’s new handsome, wealthy doctor, even though he seems to enchant the patients and personnel. She thinks he’s a serial killer . . . and she’s right.


(8) Little Black Lies by Sandra Block

Medical mysteries aren’t complete without at least one stretch in the psych ward. Sandra Block’s resident-in-training, Dr. Zoe Goldman, wants to help troubled patients. But Zoe’s having her own problems: nightmares about a fire that may be all too real. She needs answers, but the one person who can give them—her adoptive mother—is losing her memory to dementia. Zoe has to face her own terrors to save herself.


(9) Stress Fracture by D.P. Lyle

Lyle’s mysteries are fun to read. Many are police procedurals, but if you’re looking for a medical thriller, try Stress Fracture. It has all the elements: the clever, taunting psychopath and a healthy dose of greed, corruption, and conspiracies tied to the military and medical establishments. The award-winning Lyle is a cardiologist and has been a consultant for TV shows including Cold Case, CSI: Miami, and Diagnosis Murder. If you want his blood pressure to skyrocket, ask him about medical inaccuracies in House.


(10) The Fever by Megan Abbott

Nobody knows what’s causing the mysterious illness attacking high school girls in Dryden. Is it toxic water, sex, vaccinations? The town, crazed by fear and paranoia, begins to unravel. The real fever here, as reviewers love to point out, is lust, jealousy, and adolescent hormones. A fine medical mystery without any intrepid but flawed doctors, beautiful young researchers, or greedy co-conspirators.