‘Char­la­tans’ teases, but it fails to thrill

The Commercial Appeal - - Sunday Break -

“Char­la­tans” (G.P. Put­nam’s Sons), by Robin Cook

For his 35th novel, Robin Cook chose a sub­ject scarier than a vi­ral out­break or co­mas or bioter­ror­ism: doc­tors.

“Char­la­tans” cen­ters on the life of Noah Rothauser, the su­per chief res­i­dent at Bos­ton Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal (BMH). Young and am­bi­tious, Rothauser has a ca­reer on the fast track. But when a se­ries of anes­the­sia-re­lated deaths rocks the hospi­tal, he starts to ques­tion a great many things about his cho­sen pro­fes­sion.

Cook, a physi­cian him­self, has al­ways had plenty to say about the state of mod­ern medicine, but “Char­la­tans” sug­gests that he’s more wor­ried than ever. BMH fea­tures the lat­est and great­est tech­nol­ogy, but the peo­ple us­ing it to treat pa­tients are stuck in a sys­tem that hasn’t changed since the start of the 20th cen­tury. Rothauser is ded­i­cated to be­com­ing a doc­tor at the ex­pense of ev­ery­thing else in his life, while doc­tors in the book who have al­ready earned their M.D. are ego­tis­tic and en­ti­tled, of­ten flout­ing the rules and blam­ing their col­leagues when some­thing goes wrong.

The novel’s plot zooms along, but it never feels that sus­pense­ful. In part, that’s be­cause Cook spends a great many pages as the om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor, telling read­ers what char­ac­ters are think­ing and why they’re be­hav­ing in a cer­tain way rather than show­ing them their ac­tions and let­ting read­ers draw their own con­clu­sions. Here’s an ex­am­ple from in­side Noah’s head: “He won­dered when he would hear from her, whether the next day or the day af­ter that … not since high school … had he been quite so con­fused, ir­ri­tated and wor­ried all at the same time.”

Noah is by far the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter. The others feel too one-di­men­sional. Even the mys­te­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful Dr. Ava Lon­don, who lives in a three-story Bea­con Hill home she shouldn’t be able to af­ford and main­tains mul­ti­ple so­cial me­dia pro­files, never reaches the level of com­plex­ity she should. When we do learn her real life story, it pro­vokes more of a shoul­der shrug than an aha mo­ment.

What Cook does well, and al­ways has done well, is set pieces in the hospi­tal. Each of the three pa­tient death scenes are metic­u­lously writ­ten, with crack­ling di­a­logue that read­ers will rec­og­nize from med­i­cal TV dra­mas: “He’s in ven­tric­u­lar fib­ril­la­tion”; “I’m in the tho­rax and look­ing at the heart”; “Go ahead and bronch him!” It’s when the time of death is called and the ac­tion set­tles down that the book loses much of its mo­men­tum.

Still, Cook fans will keep turn­ing the pages. He does make read­ers think with long pas­sages about how med­i­cal train­ing needs to adapt and how tech­nol­ogy is re­shap­ing not only the prac­tice of medicine, but also what it means to be a doc­tor. At your next checkup, it may even make you won­der about those fancy diplomas on your physi­cian’s wall.

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