Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Life on the Line

I’m intrigued by novels featuring scientists and the dark edges of the medical profession, having enjoyed the works of real-life medics Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Tess Gerritsen, and James Rollins, as well the exploits of a certain Dr. Hannibal Lecter. (I guess my own scientific background, coupled with the influence of my retired psychiatrist father, casts a long shadow.) So I was intrigued to receive this week an interesting debut novel from C.J. Lyons titled Lifelines.

I first met Lyons when she was the chairperson of the International Thriller Writers’ inaugural, 2006 ThrillerFest conference in Phoenix, Arizona. She was a great organizer in addition to being a big reader of mystery and thriller fiction. She told me (between rushing from one event to the next) that she was scribbling a piece of fiction in her free time, so I asked her to keep me posted about her own writing.

When I saw Lyons again last summer, during ThrillerFest in New York City, and shared a drink with her and Kristy Montee (one half of the pseudonymous writing duo “P.J. Parrish”), she was excited to tell me about her novel, Lifelines, which had been purchased by Berkley. More recently, Lyons asked me to provide some notes on reading mystery fiction from a reviewer’s perspective, as she was teaching a creative-writing class.

But weren’t we talking about my receiving a review copy of Lifelines? Yes, of course. That book arrived here this week, together with a press release from Berkley that gives a synopsis of Lyons’ tale:
Growing up in L.A., tough-as-nails ER doc Lydia Fiore thought she’d seen everything. When she arrives in Pittsburgh, eager for her first shift as a newly fledged attending physician, she realizes how wrong she is.

During her first days at work, Lydia finds herself embroiled in the murder of a gay-rights activist, targeted by a right-wing militia, stalked by an unknown assailant, and racing to stop a plot to ignite a race riot.

At first Lydia yearns for the mean streets of L.A., but, with the help of her new colleagues and hunky paramedic Trey Garrison, she overcomes her doubts and embraces her new life at Angels of Mercy’s ER.

Written by a physician who has worked in some of the country’s busiest ER’s, C.J. Lyons’ medical suspense series gives readers a taste of life on the edge, reminding them that everyone needs a hero, even doctors and nurses working to save lives.
I could see right away that Lyons’ debut was not a conventional doctors and nurses mystery. So I asked her to tell me how a physician finally found herself in print, and what we might expect from her debut work. Her e-mailed response:
When Berkley asked me to create a new series for them, something edgy and different, medical suspense told through the point of view of the women who worked in an urban trauma center, I was excited by the challenge.

I started by setting
Lifelines during the most dangerous day of the year, July 1st. Why is July 1st the most dangerous day of the year? Well, here in the U.S., that’s the day the brand-new interns start work in hospitals, the ink on their medical school diplomas still wet. That also gave me my premise. What if a new doctor working her first day at a new hospital lost the “wrong” patient and couldn’t explain why he died? Then I added a twist. What if a doctor saved the wrong patient and by doing so was targeted by a killer?

Drawing upon my 17 years of practicing medicine as a pediatric emergency room physician and community pediatrician to create
Lifelines’ main characters was easy. Trying to create a realistic set of “bad guys” for them to deal with was a lot more difficult.

You see, in real life, most of the villains aren’t highly intelligent, cunning serial killers who spend all their time obsessing over how to torment the police, which obscure red herrings to lay, or how to manipulate victims into walking into their devious traps. No, the killers, rapists, and abusers I’ve dealt were nothing like fictional killers. Instead, they really are “ordinary”--people you’d pass on the street and think nothing of. A few of the more heinous who I’ve had the pleasure to testify against, although unfortunately after children had been harmed or died, were even pillars of the community and leaders of their churches.

So what did these people have in common? What traits could I draw upon for my fictional criminals? The one thing I noted over and over in my dealings with gangbangers, drug addicts, child molesters, physical abusers, sexual predators, and killers (including one who could be labeled a serial killer) was an overwhelming need for self-gratification. These people had all gone [and] built a universe that revolved around them and their needs. When the real world intruded and denied them anything--the right brand of beer when they got home from work, a baby daring to cry and disturb Monday night wrestling, a girl who flaunted her sexuality by walking past but not responding to their crude jeers--they were prepared to respond with violence to get what they wanted.

No exulted codes of honor like Hannibal Lecter (my own favorite “bad guy”), no elaborate, twisted fantasies that consumed them, no intricate meticulously thought-out plans. Merely: I want it, I want it now, and I’m going to get it.

Other people serve as objects, means to achieving their desires. Malignant narcissism. Hard for a writer to find much that a reader could engage with in that kind of character. Hard to make such juvenile thought processes compelling.

But I was determined to make
Lifelines as realistic as possible--yet, still keep it entertaining. So I focused on how hard it is to tell the good guys from the bad. How we all are driven by similar motives: family, love, security. And how easy it can be for any of those motives--and any of us--to drift into the realm of obsession. To become that monster who acts for instant self-gratification and sees others as objects to use and abuse.

And how terrifying it is that they look just like the rest of us. But, since I’m building a world where no one is immune to danger, maybe that’s a good thing …
Lifelines isn’t due out until March 4, but an excerpt is already available here. If you like your mysteries flavored with an authentic medical flavor, this book just might be the prescription for you.

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