Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Life Support by Tess Gerritsen
Life Support by Tess Gerritsen, 1997
Medical thrillers are a genre that I've always been aware of, but not much interested in (this might have something to do with my general aversion to blood and guts). I've just never come across any that really appealed to me. I read Tess Gerritsen's Life Support in large part due to the reccomendation of Stephen King, who's generally right about these things and, sure enough, Life Support is a highly entertaining, smooth read with an intriguing dash of bizarre science.
ER doctor Toby Harper is a woman with a lot on her plate: a stressful job working nights at a Boston hospital, a lackluster love life and a mother with Alzheimer's who takes up all of her free time. When a naked, raving man is brought into the ER and promptly disappears, Toby's complicated life takes a turn for the worse when she accidently stumbles on a far-reaching medical conspiracy that will stop at nothing to silence her, even if they have to destroy her career and her family to do it.
Gerritsen, herself a former doctor, has a snappy, clear prose style with believable dialogue. She is definitely at home when describing medical procedures and theories; the book's best sections are her propulsive descriptions of medical emergencies:
"We've got sinus rythmn," said Toby, glancing at the screen. "Stop compressions for a second."
The driver stopped pumping on the chest.
"I'm barely getting a pulse," said Val.
"Turn up that IV," said Toby. "We got any pressure yet."
Val glanced up from the arm cuff. "Fifty over zip. Dopamine drip?"
"Go for it. Resume compressions."
The driver crossed his hands over the sternum and began to pump again. Maudeen scurried to the code cart and pulled out drug ampules and syringes.
Toby slapped her stethoscope on the chest and listened to the right lung field, then the left. She heard distinct breath sounds on both sides. That told her the Et tube was properly positioned and the lungs were filling wirh air. "Hold compressions," she said and slid the stethoscope over to the heart.
She could barely hear it beating. --- (page 31)
Gerritsen's brand of scary science is a highly effective and fairly original plot device that borders on sci-fi at times. One particularly nasty element are the stomach-churning results of some rather unusual pregnancies. Gerritsen could probably write very good Crichton-style scare-your-pants-off science fiction.
Her actual plotting is not ingenious, but it reads well. She's not a writer of whiplash twists and turns; her narrative has a more straightforward progression that, while entertaining, is not up to the level of the upper tier of thriller writers. The bad guys are a little too easy to spot and their wicked plans a little too underdeveloped.
The book's characters and emotional underpinnings are also less succesful than the medical details. Toby is a likable protagonist and her main love interest, hunky medical examiner Dan Dvorak, is likewise engaging, but neither character has a lot of depth. The supporting cast also tends to elicit a shrug, maybe because of Gerritsen's habit of introducing characters and then forgetting about them. It's a novel where you're more likely to remember the gore and weird science than the characters. For instance, a subplot concerning a prengant teenage prostitute that should be hugely affecting goes by without leaving much of an impression.
I hesitate to say that the whole book does the same, but Life Support is a fun read (and sometimes a scary read), but it's not distinguished enough in characterization or plotting to be really memorable. Like Anno Dracula, there's a spark missing.
NEXT UP: Book Two of the Wheel of Time cycle, The Great Hunt.