Though only peripherally a “medical thriller”. Michael Palmer has managed to write a gripping and topical political/science thriller revolving around the controversial subject of genetically engineered food crops. Dr. John Meacham has just allowed himself to lose his temper, and verbally abuse a patient for the first time in years. The first time since he nearly lost his medical license for doing the exact same thing. All those years ago, years of good behavior and a professional approach are lost. Then, he blew up at a patient for continuing to smoke despite a massive heart attack. The medical board gave him a six month suspension and sent him for treatment. The first time his anger was fueled by an honest motive of caring for his patients continued health, booze and working too many hours. And he snapped and let lose a tirade of words that struck to the core and the patient reported him. But now, he has been through anger management, he has been through AA and he has managed to control that temper….until now.
But now, working at a small rural practice, Roberta Jennings has managed to make him snap. She is obese, morbidly so yet she continues to over eat, continues to not even take serious any of a number of diets he has prescribed. And even without the booze, even without the long hours, he has snapped again and let lose with another profanity laced tirade. Right after Jennings left, threatening to call the board again, he realizes that his entire staff heard him. He realizes that every patient in the waiting room could not have helped baring witness to his verbal abuse. He sees no way out, the board will surely take away his license to practice medicine and no excuse will spare him. The thought enters his mind that if he eliminates the witnesses, his staff and the waiting patients, if he leaves ‘no witnesses’, it’ll only be Jennings’ word against his. He takes the pistol from the locked drawer in his office. The pistol he placed there after a fellow doctors practice was robbed. And he empties it. Seven people are left dead, and then Meacham realizes he has done a very bad thing. The board will never let him keep his license now. So he turns the gun on himself.
Seven people dead. But not Meacham, he is still alive. Meacham’s sponsor in the ‘Physicians Wellness Office’ (a group modeled on real life programs to help and monitor doctors recover from addiction, and become once again a functioning and vital part of the medical community.) is ER Doctor, Lou Welcome, himself a recovering addict. Welcome gets the call from the head of the PWO, who never agrees with Welcome’s treatment plan for addicts, that his star client has gone over the edge and killed seven people, but himself still survives and is in the ER at another hospital close by. Meacham jumps in his car and starts the trip to rural Deland Regional. Upon his arrival, he takes note that the ER staff is acting strangely for having a gunshot head wound patient, and the attending has started a procedure in the ER that should never be performed there. before he can intervene Meacham himself is dead.
Dr. Welcome, who in the four years he has been Meacham’s sponsor has gotten to know Meacham’s wife. He offers to drive her home and comfort her, but as inexplicable as Meacham’s action were, and as shocking as his sudden death is Mrs. Meacham insists on driving so Welcome goes along as the passenger. On the drive, Mrs. Meacham causes an accident because of eradicate driving brought on by an obsession with a driver with a busted tail light.
Meanwhile, in near by Washington D.C. the President of the United States is going through a crisis of his own. His polls are at an all-time low, partially because his wife's friend, and his Secretary Of Agriculture was caught in a sex scandal with an under age prostitute. The first lady Darlene Malory is caught in the middle as the Secretary was a childhood friend. When she has a private and in promptitude meeting with the Secretary, who swears to her that he was setup but he doesn’t know why. Because of this the President is angry with his wife and is acting short tempered in ways that are new to their relationship. Then when a “deep throat” type of character also tells her that there is more to the story than meets the eye, she starts, against her husbands demand, a clandestine investigation.
Meanwhile, Welcome notices that a good number of people in the rural community where Meacham lived, are also acting oddly at times, loosing their inhibitions and committing acts that defy common sense, he starts digging as well and their investigations are bound to meet in the middle.
Palmer has put together not only a very topical plot (see these recent news articles here & here) but a complex plot that stretches from small rural farms and road side dinners to the highest branches of power within the government. Along the way we meet some very human and real characters, including Dr. Welcome who could be any brilliant and talented doctor today, who has had his personal and professional life marred by addiction, and has recovered, dealt with it, and made the best of the lessons his mistakes cost him.
Palmer also succeeds in introducing some likeable and believable supporting cast of characters, from city minorities to rural waitresses. Even the antagonists aren’t one dimensional. There are a couple of minor glitches in the logic of the story, but they are very minor and most readers won’t even notice them. The story also requires the reader to stretch their imagination and realm of believability, but though the story is filled with ‘conspiracy theory’ topics, they are backed by the current science of today, with a warning of what could and probably will, be tomorrow. All in all, another great thriller that is more politics than medical and Palmer proves he is still on top of his game after 16 previous great books.
Michael Palmer, M.D., trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine, and is now an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s physician health program. In 1978 he read Robin Cook’s classic thriller Coma . Cook was an upper classmen at Wesleyan and Palmer figured if Cook could write a best seller, so could he. And he did. His first nine medical thrillers all hit the New York Times Best Seller List. Quite an accomplishment for someone whose writing in college was considered dull. An avid read of escapist fiction and a huge fan of authors like Robert Ludlum, Alistair McLean, Eric Ambler, John D. MacDonald, Agatha Christie he’d read a book or two a week. When he’s not writing he still works part-time at Massachusetts Medical Society as an Associate Director of their physician health program, helping doctors with physical illness, mental illness, or substance abuse put their lives together.
Article first published as Book Review: Oath Of Office by Michael Palmer on Blogcritics.
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