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You're in the hospital. Your spouse has gone home to take care of the kids; the room is dark; you're disoriented and doped with painkillers. Medical personnel have been doing strange and inexplicable things to you all day. You wake up at 2 a.m. and find an unfamiliar white-clad figure injecting something into your iv line. Do you (a) close your eyes and drift back off in childlike trust, or (b) sit up and bellow, "Stop! Stop!"?

It depends on what you've been reading. If you are planning a hospital stay anytime soon, don't put a medical thriller in your overnight bag. The doctor as compassionate healer, worthy of unquestioning trust, has been taking a beating ever since Robin Cook's Coma hit the shelves in 1977, and the trend shows no sign of stopping.

"When a doctor does go wrong," Sherlock Holmes once remarked to Watson, "he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge." This view of the doctor as occupying a plane above common humanity (Holmes's opponent in "The Speckled Band," Dr. Grimesby Roylott, can bend a poker double with his bare hands) persists. But it is not the nerve or the poker-bending muscle that intimidates us layfolk; it's the knowledge. Only doctors know all the secrets of the body, including the ones they aren't telling us. We can only hope they put this knowledge to work for us instead of for themselves.

Greed: the great corrupter of the profession. Mainstream medical thrillers—those you are likely to find in what the book trade refers to as the "ABA market" (American Booksellers Association), in contrast to the "cba market" (Christian Booksellers Association)—are almost entirely centered on doctors who use their knowledge for gain. Cook, a physician who has been on leave from ...

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In the Magazine

October 5, 1998

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