Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What Makes a Medical Thriller

As a writer of medical thrillers, I thought this would be an easy task to blog about what makes a medical thriller until I actually began to think of those things that distinct a medical thriller from other types of novels in the same genre (legal, military, etc..)

Here’s what I’ve determined to be essential when labeling a book a medical thriller.

1. It must have one of these three elements:
            a. The leading character(s) is a medical person.
            b. The setting is a hospital, clinic, etc.
            c. There is an inherent medical mystery.

2. There is a moral question: If you look at some of the well-known medical thriller authors like Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, Michael Crichton and Harry Kraus to name a few—at the heart of the book is an ethical dilemma. In Crichton’s Jurassic Park—is genetic engineering wise? Cook’s Acceptable Risk—was a toxin responsible for the behavior of those accused of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials? Kraus’s Stainless Steal Hearts—is experimenting on aborted fetuses ethical?

3. They take a known medical situation and put a twist on it. This is what, perhaps, makes a medical thriller so scary. You can understand the potential for it to happen—particularly when the news highlights stories that you’ve read in a book. Here’s a recent headline that got my writer’s wheels spinning. South Korean officials found pills from China filled with crushed infant remains. At first I thought, surely—this is one of those internet conspiracy theories but I found it referenced in more than one reliable source. What do you think of that? What medical plot could be born from this true life story? I’m keeping mine a secret—for now.

My debut novel, Proof, examines the real life possibility of DNA testing setting a guilty man free. What does the criminal justice system do when the gold standard of criminal prosecution fails? What does the victim do?

4. It is helpful, possibly mandatory, to have a medical background. To pen an authoritative medical manuscript, medical training and having worked in the medical field are paramount to giving the manuscript an authentic feel. Writing from a medical angle is difficult. Interpreting the language, knowing those special nuances, and knowing how these systems work is essential to a good novel. If you’re trying to write a medical thriller and have never been involved in the medical field—I highly suggest you pay a medical type to review your work. Of those well-known medical thriller writers—I couldn’t think of one that didn’t have a medical background. Can you?

What do you think are the essential components of a medical thriller? Can you think of a well-known medical thriller writer that didn’t have a medical background?

This piece originally posted on Nike Chillemi's Crime Fictionista Blog.


  1. I think you're correct with your description, especially the part about twisting a medical scenario to surprise and draw in the reader. I've attempted to do that in all my own medical thrillers.
    And, yes, I think it's necessary to have a medical background to write a true medical thriller. Although a writer can employ certain situations that have a medical component to add to the depth of their novel, to write a true medical thriller where these elements are woven throughout the story offers too many opportunities for error for those without such knowledge.

  2. I would like to offer a little bit of a contrarian view on the setting part of your criteria. I think limiting your setting to the hospital or clinic can make the story less powerful. Certainly, these settings should be a part of the story, if nothing else to establish the background and usual world of your protagonist -- but what about a medical thriller where the 'bad guy' is doing something insane in the basement of a hotel on illegal immigrants (saw a Monk that explored this area). I definitely agree that someone with a medical background has an advantage when writing these -- but seems to me that Greg Iles has written some pretty good medical thrillers -- and he does not have a medical background unless you count a father who was a physician. These points aside, I like the post.

  3. Thanks Richard for stopping by! When is that new novel of yours releasing!!

    David-- I like your thoughts here. After all, Proof has maybe 3-5 scenes in a hospital setting and I like your idea of opening it up to other settings. And I do like your point about Iles though I've not read him personally.

    For me, I do have other medical experts review the parts of the ms that are not my area of expertise. So for Proof-- an L&D nurse was important to have on board and I'm guessing that Iles may use his father in this way. I'm going to check out one of his books to see what I think-- see if my theory stands up.

  4. Jordyn, Stress Test is completed, edited, shined, polished, and the ARCs have been sent out to endorsers and reviewers. It's even available for pre-order on Amazon (where you can see the cover Thomas Nelson has created). But, publishing being dependent on schedules and slots, it will be released this next spring. Hope it's worth the wait.
    Thanks so much for asking.

  5. I take exception with #4: It is not mandatory to have a medical background or training to write an authentic medical thriller. It is essentially a thriller in a medical setting. Good research, asking questions of people who work in the medical field and having someone with some medical background proof-read your book can turn out an equally good medical thriller. My new book CURE, in the tradition of Robert Heinlein's THE DOOR INTO SUMMER is a good example of this. CURE, set in a dsytopian future, looks back on the failure of Obamacare.

  6. Interesting thoughts, Kilburn.

    Yes, it is imperative if you don't have a medical background to have the novel read by someone in the medical field.

    Keep in mind-- the best person to do this is still practicing in the specialty the novel centers in. Or at the very least-- someone still in practice.

    The longer it's been that someone's been out of the medical field-- the less current information they're likely to have. Some practitioners do keep up pretty well with medical journals post retirement but I'm not sure if they're the exception rather than the rule.