With so many gripping, thrilling, goosebumps-inducing stories to choose from, how does one decide which are the best medical mystery books of all time? We, at Buzzle, have listed out what we are certain, unquestionably must-reads.
Did You Know?
Most medical fiction authors, including Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen, and Michael Palmer, have degrees in medicine themselves, and never intended to take to writing; their tryst with penmanship happened in a very unplanned manner. In fact, Tess Gerritsen began writing her first book when she was on maternity leave from her work as a physician.
The genre of medical fiction is one of endless imagination, and therefore, it is no surprise that avid readers find it difficult to put down medical thrillers until the very last word. Right from the possibility of the product of advanced genetic engineering causing mass-mayhem, to forensic investigation holding the clue to solve the mystery of the most heinous of crimes, to the onslaught of a bio-war, a plethora of books in the last few decades have been written along these lines.
While some authors, like Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Michael Palmer and a few others have clearly established that writing medical mystery novels is their forte, by publishing a whole range of novels in this genre, including entire series with recurring characters in some cases, there are many other notable titles by some authors who do not frequently write about these topics, that are worth a mention. We have compiled a list of our favorite medical mystery titles of all time.
The Best Books by Award-winning Medical Fiction Novelists
Coma → After his debut, where he related his own experiences as a medical intern, did not sell too well, Robert Cook released the lethal thriller, Coma, which is a completely terrifying story. Adapted later into a movie by Michael Crichton, and a television miniseries, this novel unveils the dark secret of Boston Memorial, where a number of patients who underwent operations, even minor ones, at the hospital, unexpectedly slipped into indefinite comas. With a female protagonist, this novel also highlights the difficulty faced by women who aspire to enter the medical world.
Outbreak → Imagine an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the United States of America. Robin Cook draws you into this nightmare scenario with this novel. What’s worse, the protagonist, Dr. Marissa Blumenthal, a virologist at the Center for Disease Control, finds reason to believe that the outbreak is a planned conspiracy, and before she knows it, her life is also in danger. This book was also adapted into a television movie in 1995.
Acceptable Risk → This novel, adapted in 2001 to make a TV movie of the same name, is based on the theme of how the glitter of fame can make the medical community alter their known standard of acceptable risk, delving into the development of personality-altering, synthetic drugs. One of the ancestors of a young nurse, Kim Stewart, was convicted in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. In the basement of her house that she inherited, her boyfriend, Dr. Edward Armstrong finds a mold that has incredible therapeutic properties. Dazzled by the potential of this discovery, Edward creates a mood-altering designer drug, and injects it into himself, and that is when things go horribly wrong. In search of the truth about what really indicted her ancestor, Kim embarks on a startling journey of self-discovery.
Contagion → The second novel in the Jack Stapleton series, Contagion is the story of a doctor who has lost everything; his family to an air accident, and his practice to a ruthless takeover, and is now training in forensic pathology. His life takes an unexpected turn when a very dangerous strain of the influenza virus is on the verge of outbreak. His horror knows no bounds when he realizes who is behind this bio-hazard.
Crisis → Exploring the dirty world of medical malpractice, Robin Cook’s gripping novel, and one of the best in his Jack Stapleton series, Crisis, tells the story of Dr. Craig Bowman, who is being sued for medical negligence after the death of his patient, an extremely humiliating matter for a veteran physician, who has started his own concierge medical practice for the elite who can afford it. His brother-in-law, Dr. Jack Stapleton, who steps in as an expert witness for the case, suggests that the body of the victim be exhumed. Apparently, Jack has hit a nerve somewhere because from that moment on he faces only opposition, and there are people ready to take his life. It is a chilling tale, and we recommend this book as a must-read.
For more information about the author and his other books, do visit the official Robin Cook website.
Harvest → A tale that gives the reader an insight into the ruthless world of organ trafficking, Tess Gerritsen’s novel, Harvest, is a thrilling story. When Dr. Abby DiMatteo, a doctor from Boston’s Bayside Hospital redirects a dying patient’s heart donation to a seventeen-year-old boy who is battling for his life, as opposed to allowing the hospital to channel it to a wealthy woman, she almost loses her job. But when another heart mysteriously appears at the hospital for the elite patient in question, she stumbles upon the terrible underground racket of organ harvesting, in which even doctors from her hospital are involved.
Life Support → Tess Gerritsen’s biggest success after Harvest, Life Support is another chilling medical thriller. It is the story of Dr. Toby Harper, who witnesses the impact of a very rare viral infection of the brain in a senior citizen she brought in, followed by his unexplained disappearance. With symptoms of this disease surfacing in other older patients, all roads seem to lead to a medical facility located in a neighborhood for the retired rich. And that is when Toby finds a mysterious connection between the disease, and a pregnant sixteen-year-old prostitute. A gripping read, this book is one of the author’s best-sellers.
Bloodstream → Widowed Dr. Claire Elliot and her teenage son Noah move to the peaceful lakeside town of Tranquility, where they hope to build life anew. Imagine Claire’s shock when in the very town she moved to, to shield her son from the path of negativity he may be inclined to take, as a result of the trauma he has been through, there occurs an unprovoked incident of teenage violence, in the form of an open firing at his school, followed by many more such vicious outbreaks of cruelty by otherwise-composed teenagers. As Claire tries to find a medical cause for these strange happenings, she learns an even more terrifying truth; once in fifty years, the children staying in this town suddenly display violent behavior. The bloodcurdling tale of the secret behind what horror actually clouds Tranquility, Bloodstream is a book that is hard to put down till the last word.
The Surgeon → This title is the first installment of the Rizzoli and Isles series, the chronicles of a homicide detective and a medical examiner duo, who together, solve crime, which has been adapted to a TV series. One of the most brilliantly written stories, this novel is about a serial killer whose victims are female, who commits his heinous crimes with such precision that he earns the nickname, “The Surgeon”. Strangely, his method of operation mimics the ordeal that Dr. Cordell went through years ago; however, that encounter resulted in her killing her attacker and barely escaping with her own life. Highlighting the scalpel-thin line between those who kill, and those who cure, this book is considered to be Gerritsen’s most fascinating accomplishments, and is one of our favorites too.
For more information about the author and her other books, do visit the official Tess Gerritsen website.
Extreme Measures → This novel is the one that Michael Palmer is best known for, mainly owing to the fact that a movie was adapted from it, starring Hugh Grant. Unfortunately, the movie did not stay 100% true to the plot of the book, and because of that, and other reasons, the movie was not as successful commercially as it could have been. However, the novel itself is brilliantly written, and is about an ambitious, and talented doctor, Eric, who witnesses a wide variety medical malpractice committed by his colleagues, the senior faculty at the White Memorial Hospital. Eric can either look away and join their ranks, or end up as their next victim.
Silent Treatment → A woman is murdered at a hospital, where she was lying in wait for her surgery. The immediate suspect is her husband, who is also her doctor. Dr. Harry Palmer gets another shock when he comes to know that his wife was living a lie; a double life, and he had known nothing about it. In the midst of coming to terms with all of it, another patient of his is also murdered, in a way that no one except him knows that it was not an accident. Harry not only has to get himself out of the line of suspicion, but also needs to find the killer, who is obviously a doctor too, before he murders his next victim. The book highlights the ease with which those who save lives are also in a position to take life away. It is a good read, keeping the reader intrigued right until the end.
Fatal → Fatal is the chilling tale of three separate unexplained deaths in different cities, all holding pieces to complete a jigsaw of an enigma. Dr. Matt Rutledge returns to his hometown after many years and sets up a practice. His patients seem to be showing symptoms of a strange and rare form of cancer. Matt is sure that the Belinda Coal and Coke company, which he blames for the untimely accidental death of his father―a miner and an employee―is responsible, as he feels they are negligent towards environmental and safety issues. But then, two women, who are strangers to each other, come into the town investigating the mysterious deaths of someone they knew. This story, which seeks to expose the dangers of America’s mass-immunization practice, draws inspiration from the author’s personal experience.
The Sisterhood → The beauty of this book is that, although the author makes it very easy for readers to guess who the villain is, and reading this book feels like watching a movie where your heart sinks when you realize that the protagonist is walking into a trap, there is enough suspense in the book to keep readers’ pulses racing. An interesting concept, the story is about the secret behind unexplained, strange deaths of patients whose surgeries were in fact successful. Dr. David Shelton, who is in the line of suspicion when a patient under his watch succumbs, unearths the key to this mystery while on the run.
For more information about the author and his other books, do visit the official Michael Palmer website.
Other Mind-blowing Medical Mystery Titles
All the authors mentioned above are nothing less than masters of medical suspense. Each of their works is better than their previously released books, and have left us fans of this genre absolutely spellbound, and completely hooked till the last letter. But there are some other authors, who have just dabbled at the concept of medical mystery, and yet have created masterpieces. Here is a list of some of them:
The Eleventh Plague (John S. Marr and John Baldwin) → The Eleventh Plague is a book that describes what it would be like if mankind’s worst nightmare comes to life. It is a dramatized account of how things would be if all the ten Biblical plagues struck humanity at once. The story has all the elements of an ideal horror story; mass panic, gore, and even a deluded mad scientist, and is an absolute literary treat for aficionados of this genre.
A Cold Mind (David Lindsey) → A medical thriller like no other, this novel tells the story of multiple unexplained deaths of high-profile escorts in Houston. Detective Stuart Townsend is at his wits end when there is nothing that connects the victims. The killer, if there is one, leaves behind no clues. Perhaps the girls have a suicide pact? But then, the detective and the medical examiner on the case make a startling discovery. The author takes the readers on a thrilling journey as he strategically unveils what goes on in the cold mind of a deranged serial killer.
The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton) → A fascinating story, this novel explores the possibility of infestation by an extra-terrestrial microorganism. A military satellite returns from outer space, bringing with it a vector of a deadly disease that causes blood clots, leading to instant death. This book was widely adapted, it has been made into a movie of the same name, as well as a TV series.
The Hot Zone (Richard Preston) → It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. After reading this book, we also concluded that a true medical account is a million times more terrifying than any kind of story. Author Robert Preston goes on to narrate in complete detail the origin, spread, and effect of the Ebola virus, HIV, and a number of deadly diseases, and also includes true stories of people who have succumbed to the same. Popular authors of the horror genre have vouched that they have never read anything more scary in their lives.
Before I conclude, here is a quote from one the pioneers of mystery, which almost sums up the genre that is medical mystery:
“There’s no need for fiction in medicine,’ remarks Foster… ‘for the facts will always beat anything you fancy.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
‘A Medical Document’, in Round the Red Lamp (1894)
As voracious readers ourselves, we tried to ensure that our list does not fall short in any way. However, if you feel that any novel that deserves to be named one of the ‘best medical mystery books ever written’, do leave a comment.