We love mystery!

Medical Mysteries

Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals make fantastic sleuths. In this episode, Brook and Sarah discuss the origins of the medical mysteries and thrillers.


Kay Scarpetta series (1990-2023) Patricia Cornwell

Grant Country series (2001-2007) Karin Slaughter

Bones (2005-2017) Fox Studios

House (2004-2012) Fox Studios

Silent Witness (1996-2024) BBC

Dr. Temperance Brennan series (1997-2023) Kathy Reichs

Reluctant Coroner series ( 2018-2024) Paul Austin Ardoin

Da Vinci’s Inquest (1998-2005) CBC

Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001) CBS Studios

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you doing today?
SarahI’m doing great. How about you?
BrookGood. I’m ready to talk mystery.
SarahAnd not just mystery, but medical mysteries today.
BrookThat’s right. Yeah, so in previous episodes we’ve discussed some professions that lend themselves well to amateur sleuthing, like authors, politicians, or reporters and today we’re discussing another type of job that’s ideal for sleuthing on the side: Physicians and other medical professions. Now all murder mysteries have some type of medical component. There’s been an injury, an accident, a poisoning, or some other type of fatal harm to a person. Discovering the cause of death is a key component to solving the case. But when the main character, who decides to investigate the murder, is a nurse, a coroner, or a surgeon, we know the plot will more closely revolve around the medical aspects of the case. When you think about it, doctors and detectives have a lot in common. They both look for clues and make detailed observations in order to figure out what’s wrong and how it might be fixed. If a contagious illness has broken out, a medical professional’s job is the same as the detective’s at a crime scene to identify the killer before it claims any more victims. Add to this the trust we tend to place in doctors and their easy access to crime scenes, sometimes even at the request of law enforcement, and the leap from doctor to detective becomes quite natural. It’s easy for us as mystery readers to accept that such a character would take on the case.
BrookSherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr. John Watson comes to mind, although he wasn’t the main investigator on their cases, he was an intelligent sounding board for Sherlock. Watson’s medical knowledge was helpful to Sherlock many times. Other more contemporary examples of medical sleuths include Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner, and Karin Slaughter’s Sara Linton, a coroner. From TV, we remember Dr Temperance Brennan, or Bones, and diagnostic genius Gregory House, who was able to deduce more than just the disease of the week. In lighter mystery tales, you’ll find sleuths who are nurses, midwives, and natural medicine specialists. For fans of the mystery thriller category, there are many standalone stories where the menace being chased after is a disease or a contagion. In these, a team of gifted doctors must defeat the threat before it wipes out a population. Here, the story isn’t a whodunnit, but the heroes are still the medical professionals who are tasked with defeating the force of evil. For me, this sub-genre has some strong pros and some strong cons.
BrookAnd I wonder if it’s the same for you, Sarah, so let’s talk about medical themed mysteries.
SarahWell, thanks for that summary, Brook. You’ve brought up a lot of great points and I want to dig into some of them. But let’s start with your question. And yeah, I agree, there’s things I like about medical mysteries and then there’s some things that don’t have me picking them up as frequently.
BrookYeah I find that the amount of discussion of like the actual wounds and injuries, like it can be a little gory right? Because these are going to be very technical discussions, usually. And sometimes that can be too much for me.
SarahI agree. Like I don’t need a lot of graphic detail about the process of handling the body if it’s the you know the medical examiner. I don’t really need to get into that. Um, but I think most authors recognize that and are pretty good about summarizing the the steps that they take.
BrookYeah, some series are more gritty than others. Um, and and that gets in with like technical as well. Like I think a really great medical mystery author won’t make the jargon too technical.
BrookOr too lengthy, but that can be also can be a drawback in some series.
SarahYeah, and I mean they are very popular right? Like you mentioned, Bones, House there’s a series from the UK called Silent Witness where it’s an office like a pathologist’s office and the characters are you know solving how did this body get to be something that they’re that they’re looking at. And these are all very long running series. So they’re obviously very popular with certainly with viewers.
BrookDefinitely, and you know the same goes for some of these book series, right? You know I mentioned the Patricia Cornwell series and then Karin Slaughter, I mean those have many many books in them. So definitely popular to readers as well.
SarahI have to say, I’ve read a few of the early books in the Patricia Cornwell series and I read a few of the later books and I didn’t like those ones as much as the earlier ones. And I’ve also read several books written by Kathy Reichs, who is the creator of the character that is Bones in television. And there’s a whole series of books that came first before it was on TV.
BrookI would completely agree about the Kay Scarpetta series and I had the exact same experience. I was reading along, and then I don’t know at what point I got to and I was like I just don’t. It was partly because of the darkness of it. It does tend to get darker as the series progresses.
Sarah I haven’t read any Karin Slaughter though. Have you read any of of her books?
BrookI haven’t, but in looking at this information for today I you know was reading some descriptions of the of the first book in the series and everything and it sounds great. The character of her coroner who is named Sara Linton sounds ah really interesting and I believe that she’s married to a police detective. So that could be a great tie in to you know work on cases and to stay involved.
SarahSo it sounds like something I might I might want to check out. I did think of another series where a coroner is the um main character. And this is the Reluctant Coroner series and his character is she’s actually a nurse practitioner and she’s taking forensic classes and I don’t remember exactly how it happens but she ends up becoming the coroner in a small town in California. And she draws on her medical knowledge and the you know things that she’s learned in these forensic courses that she’s taken and investigates I think it’s a series of deaths in the first book and I read the first couple of books in the series and I I really like it.
BrookOh that sounds fantastic and and very familiar to me because I as I’ve mentioned before I live in a rural area and county coroners are elected officials in these small towns and they might not be an actual physician but maybe they have EMT experience or they’ve you know have some level of medical training. But you know haven’t been to medical school per se and I’ve always thought what an interesting amateur sleuth that would make because you know it kind of puts them in that in-between ah world as far as ah, as far as being a professional and yet being at at these different crime scenes. So.
SarahAnd I think I’ve mentioned it before but there was this television series that was filmed here in Vancouver, and it was named Da Vinci’s Inquest after the main character who I don’t remember what his first name was but his surname was Da Vinci and he was the coroner and so you know each episode there was some death that he worked with a police detective to you know determine what the what the cause was and I believe that he was not a medical professional. But as you say he was he was the coroner and and it was his job to determine that cause of death.
BrookYeah, really interesting. And that ah show reminded me you know a very long-running television show was Diagnosis: Murder and it ran from 1993 to 2001 and Dick Van Dyke was the coroner in this show and Dick Van Dyke’s real-life son played his son on the show who was a police detective and so that gave that connection for the coroner and the police detective to kind of work together and solve these cases. But um, you know, talk about a popular show that ran just forever. It based on this, you know, medical mysteries.
SarahWell and and I think as you said in your introduction, when we’re sick, we turn to doctors to be those detectives to figure out what’s wrong with us, right? So, it’s a really logical connection that we would be seeing medical professionals as detectives in mystery stories that we enjoy.
BrookExactly. They really have to use a lot of the same type of thinking skills as far as like whittling down the um signs and symptoms to try to determine what the cause is and um, you know eliminating suspects so to speak and um, there, there are a lot of similarities in in that in that job. You could see how it makes for an easy leap to a fictional doctor as detective.
SarahOne thing I like particularly about Kathy Reichs’ books is that you know so her character is this forensic anthropologist but Kathy Reichs who writes the books she is also a forensic anthropologist and so she really is drawing on her vast knowledge and experience when she’s creating her stories. And I think we’ve talked before about people who write books you know with this sleuth as someone who’s the same profession as them and just that extra bit of truth that gets into that into that writing.
BrookAbsolutely and especially in something like this which is such a um, specific skill set right? Like it’s pretty hard to fake being you know a doctor if you’re not a doctor or a medical examiner or whatever. And not to say that it can’t be done and it can’t be done well, but as you said it’s just like another level of richness and truth that comes through when somebody has actually done the work.
SarahSo, I think there’s several examples of medical professionals who’ve also penned mysteries and you know I wonder if it isn’t a little bit of catharsis for them after seeing what is probably some pretty grim stuff in real life. Llike as readers we just are imagining this but you know they’ve probably seen very similar situations and had to deal with the reality of death in a way that readers for the most part have not had to.
BrookYeah, great point and the catharsis exactly and a way to put the story the way that it that they would have loved to have seen it. Because let’s face it in real life, nothing is ever as cut and dry as we get to have it in a mystery story. Justice many times is actually not served or at least not to the degree that we’d like to see it wrapped up with a bow and um and so I think that that would be really satisfying too If you have worked in this to be able to like write it the way you wish it would have happened.
SarahDid Agetha Christie write any medical mysteries? I know she’s certainly drew on her experience having worked in the pharmacy and that’s why there’s so many deaths involving poison. But I don’t remember Roger Ackroyd is the main is a narrator a doctor.
BrookI feel like I feel like he is a doctor and I do think we have some doctors mentioned in several stories. But ah, you know of of really so ah I can’t think of a word word.
BrookBut much of a straight medical mystery I can’t really think of one from the Christie canon.
SarahSo I did read in one of the books by Martin Edwards that Marjorie Allingham actually wanted to write a series featuring a pathologist as a detective. But her publisher preferred Albert Campion and so she’d never wrote any of those stories.
BrookWow that’s so interesting and sad, in fact. Because you know was that just because the Albert Campian character was kind of what was in vogue at the time and you know, definitely something that was sellable was that just like. Oh stick with this but who knows what could have come out of that.
SarahUm, because you mentioned um Holmes and Dr Watson being his sidekick. But I feel like Patricia Cornwell was one of the first authors to write medical mysteries.
BrookI couldn’t find, Sarah, anything much earlier than that and I’m sure that you know if I if I dug deeper or if somebody who has more experience in the medical mystery ah subgenre there perhaps could be but it’s definitely not something that comes up easily in research. We have Watson and then you know some like we said some characters that are doctors in metaphor some characters that are doctors in mysteries but not. the main character who’s like carrying this story.
SarahUm, yeah, interesting. So maybe Marjorie Allingham was just really ahead of her time.
SarahThanks Brook this has been such an interesting conversation to talk about what is a very popular subgenre in the mystery space.
BrookIt definitely is, Sarah. and I know a lot of our listeners probably ah have some favorites and maybe you’d like to share those with us. Thanks for listening today to Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.