Unnatural Exposure

body part is missing from gaping blooding woundUnnatural Exposure is a medical mystery by Patricia Cornwell featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia’s medical examiner.

In this novel, Scarpetta has learned that five 10-year-old dismembered bodies found in Ireland, have the same MO as four found in Virginia. She fears that the same killer is responsible for both.

Her fear goes into overdrive when she receives a photo in her email that could only have come from the killer of a fifth recently found body in Sussex County.

The murders are not all totally consistent, however. The most recent victim was exposed to a smallpox-like virus. A woman on Tangier Island off Norfolk has apparently died from the virus and others on the island appear to be sick from it.  Scarpetta herself has been exposed to it.

To solve the mystery, Scarpetta calls on her niece Lucy, an FBI computer expert for help. Lucy enables her aunt to take a virtual tour of the room shown in the photograph from the killer.

Besides fighting to bring the killer to justice, Scarpetta has to fight for her budget, fight to keep the misinformation from the public, fight egocentric politicians, and fight her own nature when it threatens the relationships she holds most dear.

Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
G. P. Putnam. ©1997. 338 p.
1997 bestseller #6; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lightning by Danielle Steel

 A red bolt of lightning divides cover into black and white areas.
Cancer strikes like lightning.

Lightning’s Alexandra and Sam Parker are a happily married couple in the typical Danielle Steel mold: Alex is a successful lawyer, Sam a venture capitalist. They are good looking, intelligent, hardworking, wealthy, with a delightful, brilliant child and a devoted housekeeper.

Then, like a bolt of lightning, a routine mammogram discovers a possibly malignant mass. Alex opts for breast removal when a biopsy confirms she has cancer.

Sam, whose mother died from cancer, tries to avoid acknowledging Alex’s illness. He doesn’t want to even hear about Alex’s fears or her pain. Alex’s cancer is her problem. Sam just wants her to behave as if nothing is wrong.

Meanwhile, Sam’s company takes in a new partner. Initially skeptical of Simon, Alex is quickly converted to his cheerleader when Simon introduces him to his sexy cousin.

While Sam enjoys a hot affair, Alex vomits into the toilet in her office, ministered to by a junior staffer who had done similar service when his older sister who is Alex’s age, had cancer.

Although Steel avoids her usual plot formula, she doesn’t manage to make the story believable or her major characters realistic.

Lightning turns out to be just a flash in the pan.

Lightning by Danielle Steel
Delacourt. ©1995. 396 p.
1995 bestseller #5; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Misery a Stephen King novel

Man in wheelchair sits beside bedroom window in shadow of female figure with axe
Death by hatchet awaits

Stephen King terrifies most when his stories most closely reflect everyday life. In Misery, King weaves together two familiar memes, throws in a couple of  over-the-top bits of nastiness, and produces a novel which can terrify on two levels.

The story begins with Paul Sheldon waking in a strange place in incredible pain.

A few days before, Paul had typed the last page of Fast Cars, which he thinks is his best novel, way superior to the “Misery” series that made him rich and famous.

Somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, Paul crashed his car. He’s had the misfortune to be rescued by his “number one fan,” an ex-nurse.

Annie Wilkes can’t wait for Paul’s next book.

When she learns Paul killed off that novel’s lead character, Annie insists he write a novel just for her in which Misery Chastain doesn’t die.

Despite the blur of the pilfered drugs Annie feeds him, Paul realizes she’s a pathological killer and he will be her next victim.

The pathological killer in medical settings was already a familiar and terrifying figure in the ’80s.

Nearly 40 years later, we’re now getting accustomed to the other terror in King’s novel: The adoring fans determined to control the artists they idolize.

by Stephen King
Viking, 1987. 310 p.
1987 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Random Winds: Not the usual surgeon story

dust jacket art: Dr. Martin Farrell flanked by his lover in England and wife in New York
Lover and wife on opposite sides of the surgeon

Random Winds begins in the manner of an A. J. Cronin story of a poor boy who becomes a brilliant surgeon.

But nothing I’ve come across in the 20th century’s bestsellers is anything like Belva Plain’s Random Winds.

The liner notes describe the novel as a saga about three generations of doctors, but the story is really about just one of them, Martin Farrell.

There’s the usual faithful wife and alluring temptress, the surgeons clawing for preeminence, the wealth industrialist who comes comes to the rescue with funds for the surgeon’s pet project; those are required in novels about MDs.

Readers see everything in the novel through Martin’s eyes.

Martin is smart, hard-working, principled, essentially decent.

But he also takes everything he sees at face value.

Random Winds is compelling because Martin learns repeatedly that outside the operating room the evidence of his eyes and ears isn’t always true.

It’s not until his daughter, whom he thought would take over his scalpel, chooses a different specialty that Martin realizes what had actually happened in the episodes that were turning points in his life.

Plain’s characters learn and grow so that when they meet after a passage of time they can forgive what they cannot forget.

Random Winds by Belva Plain
Delacorte Press ©1980. 496 p.
1980 bestseller #8. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Doctor is not a top Rinehart bestseller

Novels about doctors typically are tales about hard-working young men from poor families who, armed with only a stethescope, battle for justice, hand-washing, and marriage to millionaire’s daughters.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Doctor follows in that tradition.


The Doctor by Mary Roberts Rinehart

©1935, 1936, 1963, 1964. This copy a Dell Edition, 1977 (paper) 448 pp. My grade B-.


Statue of doctor on pedestal thinking is central figure on cover of paperback edition of "The Doctor"Rinehart’s doctor is Chris Arden, a dedicated MD with hopes of becoming a surgeon.

He has rented office space and a bedroom from a shiftless family, the Walters, whose sole support he becomes when the alcoholic head of the family dies.

Katie Walters is in love with the doctor with a 16-year-old’s passion.

But Chris falls for the daughter of a wealthy, unscrupulous businessman. He won’t think of marrying until he can support her.

Beverly Lewis is equally smitten with Chris but unwilling to wait years for him to build a practice.

Chris is not a particularly appealing character. He’s nice to dogs and old ladies, but treats those closest to him as if they were furniture.

Katie and Beverly are not appealing either: Katie is too selfish, Beverly too much of a doormat.

The romantic ending is a deus ex machina that squeaks as Rinehart lowers it into the final chapter.

The Doctor is not a bad novel; it’s just bad compared to other Rinehart novels.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arrowsmith stumbles and bogs down

Sinclair Lewis says Arrowsmith is the biography of a young man who was “in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass.”

The novel also stumbles and bogs down.

Arrowsmith in laboratory graces 1952 dust jacket of novel


Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

©1925. 1952 ed. Harcourt, Brace & World, includes a biographical sketch of Sinclair Lewis and “How Arrowsmith was written,” both by Barbara Grace Spayd. 464 pp. 1925 bestseller #7. My grade: B.


A drunken doctor lets Martin Arrowsmith read his Gray’s Anatomy and points him toward medical school.

Martin takes a BA, a MD, and a wife. He wants to do research, but is forced into general practice to support Leora.

He’s hopeless as a doctor: He has no people skills.

A lucky discovery leads him into a research job under the great Max Gottlieb.

Martin wants respect among scientists, but he’s willing to throw even that away when his emotions are touched.

An epidemic on a Caribbean Island gives Martin a chance to run a controlled test of a vaccine. Martin promises Gottlieb that  he won’t give in to demands to supply it to all residents.

Lewis makes Martin, Leora, and Gottleib plausible, if not particularly likeable. He sketches minor characters with broad strokes of sarcasm.

The total effect is neither serious enough or funny enough to satisfy today’s reader, but the Pulitzer committee thought the novel worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Not as a Stranger Is Too Much of a Good Thing

Morton Thompson is a fine writer with a keen sense of how plot arises from character. He’s also a master of snappy dialogue and savory description. If only Thompson had stopped sooner, Not As a Stranger would be great reading.

As a boy, Luke Marsh decides medicine will be his life. Luke grubs his way through college. When his father dies suddenly during Luke’s first year of medical school, Luke marries a nurse with a plump bank account so he can push on to become a doctor.

Luke finds most of his colleagues lacking in skill, dedication, or selflessness. He also finds patients are a real nuisance. Luke can’t relate to anyone except on a professional basis.

If Luke is a misfit, his wife, Kristine, is overdue for canonization or psychotherapy. She overlooks Luke’s adultery, excuses his incivility, pays his bills, and lets him use her as a doormat.

Luke and Kristine go on digging their rut deeper until it seems impossible for the story to ever be resolved.

Thompson does finally pull the story to a halt with a device only slightly more credible than a magic wand. But at that point, a fairy godmother would have been welcome.

Not As a Stranger
By Morton Thompson
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954
696 pages
1954 Bestseller #1
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Magnificent Obsession Is Not Even Memorable

 Old Medical Books


Magnificent Obsession
is one of Lloyd C. Douglas’s string of forgettable novels about the psychological benefits of practicing New Testament principles.

If you read White Banners or Green Light, you’ll find this novel familiar. Only the names have been changed to protect the author’s royalties.

In this novel, a neurosurgeon learns that if he does good deeds in secret, he is rewarded financially. He records his philanthropic experiences of not letting his right hand know what his left hand is doing (very tough for a surgeon) in secret code in a diary.

After Hudson’s death, the wealthy young n’er-do-well who deciphers the code is inspired to replace Hudson. In two pages, Bobby Merrick goes from ready-to-flunk med school to head of the Hudson Clinic.

Bobby not only becomes as good a doctor as his hero, he saves the doctor’s beloved daughter from a life of dissipation. He also wins the hero’s widow.

Douglas mashes romance and religion into a soggy pulp. Fortunately, the plot is so contrived and the characters so predictable that you’ll forget the book within an hour of finishing reading it.

Magnificent Obsession
Lloyd C. Douglas
Peoples Book Club, 1929
330 pages
1932 Bestseller #8
My Grade: C-

Photo credit: “Old Medical Books”  uploaded by aerogurl  http://www.sxc.hu/photo/122275

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Doctors Lock Horns in Disputed Passage

“Tubby” Forrester is a brilliant anatomist and neurosurgeon with a tongue as sharp as his scapel.   Jack Beaven feels that tongue his first day in medical school.

As much as he dislikes Tubby personally, Jack respects the man’s genius and vows to be a top scientist like Tubby. Jack succeeds so well he becomes Tubby’s assistant.

Later Tubby recommends him for the medical school faculty. They work together, but without any personal relationship. Yet Jack becomes more and more like Tubby.

Tubby has Jack see a case referred by one of his college chums, Bill Cummingham, a GP noted for taking a personal interest in patients — a daft idea to scientists like Tubby and Jack.

Jack falls for the boy’s aunt, an American girl raised in China by Chinese foster parents.

Jack’s romantic interest softens him to Bill’s view of treating patients as people instead of cases and leads, indirectly, to cracks in Tubby’s crust as well.

No one would mistake Disputed Passage for literature, but the plot and characters are far above the pot boiler level. 

And, despite Lloyd C. Douglas’ annoying vague religiosity, the novel kept my interest to the end, something a Douglas novel rarely does.

Disputed Passage
By Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1939
432 pages
1939 bestseller # 6
My Grade: B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Egyptian Joins Pessimism to Pyramids

The Egyptian is a fictional memoir of the life of a physician in the days of the pharaohs. The narrator, Sinuhe, is an old man, sick of gods and kings. He says he writes for himself rather than for posterity.

Unfortunately, Mika Waltari published the “memoir,”  inflicting Sinuhe’s misery on readers for 500 pages.

Readers will find a new interesting historical bits in this novel, but it’s entertainment value is nil.

Sinuhe’s medical skills take him all over the Middle East. His specialty is brain surgery: he drills holes in people’s heads to let out the badness.

Sinuhe meets heads of countries and commanders of armies, patches up wounded soldiers, treats the poor for free. When necessity demands, he hastens the deaths of enemies of Egypt.

Back in Thebes, he sides with the party of the newly-created god, Aton, against the followers of Ammon. The religious controversy ends in wholesale slaughter.

Sinuhe is exiled to end his days living up to his name, “the One Who Is Alone.”

Waltari’s novel is packed with sex and violence related with all the passion of the police blotter. Only Sinuhe’s servants, Kaptah and Muti, feel like living people. The rest of the characters are just hieroglyphics.

The Egyptian: A Novel
By Mika Waltari
Trans. Naomi Walford
G.P. Putnan’s Sons,  1949
503 pages
1949 Bestseller # 1
My Grade: C-

© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni