What Makes a Medical Thriller

As a writer of medical thrillers, I thought this would be an easy task to blog about what makes a medical thriller until I actually began to think of those things that distinct a medical thriller from other types of novels in the same genre (legal, military, etc..)

Here’s what I’ve determined to be essential when labeling a book a medical thriller.

1. It must have one of these three elements:

            a. The leading character(s) is a medical person.
            b. The setting is a hospital, clinic, etc.
            c. There is an inherent medical mystery.
2. There is a moral question: If you look at some of the well-known medical thriller authors like Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, Michael Crichton and Harry Kraus to name a few—at the heart of the book is an ethical dilemma. In Crichton’s Jurassic Park—is genetic engineering wise? Cook’s Acceptable Risk—was a toxin responsible for the behavior of those accused of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials? Kraus’s Stainless Steal Hearts—is experimenting on aborted fetuses ethical?

3. They take a known medical situation and put a twist on it. This is what, perhaps, makes a medical thriller so scary. You can understand the potential for it to happen—particularly when the news highlights stories that you’ve read in a book. Here’s a recent headline that got my writer’s wheels spinning. South Korean officials found pills from China filled with crushed infant remains. At first I thought, surely—this is one of those internet conspiracy theories but I found it referenced in more than one reliable source. What do you think of that? What medical plot could be born from this true life story? I’m keeping mine a secret—for now.

My debut novel, Proof, examines the real life possibility of DNA testing setting a guilty man free. What does the criminal justice system do when the gold standard of criminal prosecution fails? What does the victim do?

4. It is helpful, possibly mandatory, to have a medical background. To pen an authoritative medical manuscript, medical training and having worked in the medical field are paramount to giving the manuscript an authentic feel. Writing from a medical angle is difficult. Interpreting the language, knowing those special nuances, and knowing how these systems work is essential to a good novel. If you’re trying to write a medical thriller and have never been involved in the medical field—I highly suggest you pay a medical type to review your work. Of those well-known medical thriller writers—I couldn’t think of one that didn’t have a medical background. Can you?

What do you think are the essential components of a medical thriller? Can you think of a well-known medical thriller writer that didn’t have a medical background?

This piece originally posted on Nike Chillemi’s Crime Fictionista Blog.

Embryo: J.A. Schneider

I’m pleased to host Joyce Schneider as she discusses the medical plot elements of her medical thriller Embryo.

Welcome, Joyce!
Embryo’s plot: An intern is determined to investigate tragedies at a famous fertility & genetic engineering hospital. My husband, a physician of endless patience, helped with the medical details, which I interwove into this story idea that nagged and wouldn’t let go.

Details: “Maria Moran’s first inkling of trouble was the coppery taste in her mouth. It came suddenly, a rushing whoosh of something that made her gag, and when she reached to wipe her mouth, her hand came away smeared with blood.”

So begins this thriller about a young intern, Jill Raney, determined to investigate tragedies and terror at a famous fertility and genetic engineering hospital. When two pregnant women die and a fetus is delivered with severe chromosomal abnormalities, Jill’s superiors – including handsome, smitten-with-her resident David Levine – insist there’s no common link.

But her suspicions deepen with the grotesque murder near the hospital of another pregnant woman – her belly drained of amniotic fluid. And when a woman miscarries in the hospital and then disappears, Jill frantically searches for her – following a terrifying path that seems to link all the victims: Is someone playing with life…and the structures of human life itself?

An unforgettable tale of suspense with a shocking denouement, Embryo takes you deep into the mind of malignant genius.
What is special about Jill Rainey? “The job” is vitally important to her, but on her terms. She is strong, smart and brave, someone you like right away – but she also questions every premise and order from superiors; she sees what others don’t or won’t see and takes independent, determined action. This includes falling in love when superiors warn her against it. She’s stubborn! Her own woman!

Why does this novel stand out? A story about malignant geniuses tinkering with IVF and human genetic engineering hasn’t been done before. Some will call this sci/fi, but the technology is really there. That’s what’s scary and why this idea wouldn’t let go. The irony is that Jill’s profession should never have drawn her into suspenseful situations. Her profession should be about saving lives; bringing joyous new lives into the world. But the famous hospital she chose to train in staffs scientists monkeying with life to terrible consequences – and that’s what unexpectedly draws in this brilliant young woman.

Something else that’s unique here is EMBRYO’S fast pace. For example David Levine is a terrific OB/GYN surgeon. This is shown in as few words as possible. Here he has begun a C-section: “His hand moved so fast that it looked as if he’d drawn a red line. He made a single midline incision from below the navel to the pubis. It was a shallow cut, through the skin and subcutaneous tissue only. Beads of blood enlarged and spilled down both sides of the abdomen.” There’s a bit more, but no need to go into pages and pages of textbook surgical description. That’s boring and slows the urgency.

A timely and frightening idea, super characters, and fast pacing are what makes

EMBRYO a can’t-put-down thriller and a real page turner.


J.A. (Joyce Anne) Schneider is a former staffer at Newsweek. She has published Flora Tristan and Darkness Falls (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books); Embryo is her first ebook. She is passionate about reading & writing – especially thrillers, medical thrillers, and mysteries. Decades of being married to a physician and patient explainer means that there’ll be fascinating medical angles even in “regular” thrillers that she writes. She canNOT fall asleep without reading a favorite book…even after a long day of writing.