Robin Cook Births the Medical Thriller Genre
Examining the majority of literary genres, it can be fairly difficult to determine their actual point of origin, to pin-point a specific book by a known author which kicked off the whole affair.
This privilege is generally reserved for modern genres, and today I would like to take a look at the novel which kicked off the idea of medical thrillers: Coma by Robin Cook, which by the way was adapted to film by Michael Crichton.
In a genre ever-evolving alongside our technological progress, I think it would be interesting to take a step back and see where it all began. After a brief introduction, the story presents us with Susan Wheeler, a third-year medical student who works as a trainee at the Boston Memorial Hospital. At some point during her tenure, she begins to notice something a little suspicious taking place: a few too many patients seem to be falling into comas, never to wake up again.
With a good mix of duty and curiosity, Susan begins her own investigation into the matter, and all signs point to the operating theatre. In there, she discovers the start of a thread which will lead her to uncover a hideous conspiracy she couldn’t have foreseen in her wildest dreams… and more importantly, she’ll have to figure out if she’s a victim, or an accomplice.
Now, in my opinion this is about as much as anyone should know in regards to the plot before going in, and I really can’t fathom why the description on the Amazon page reveals as much as it does. If you want to stay away from real spoilers before even starting the adventure, I do suggest you do your best to ignore it. Even the user reviews will likely spoil less.
The Terror of Medicine in Coma
When Coma was first published, I find it quite easy to imagine the reaction most people had to it was wondering why nobody else came up with this idea first. At the core of the premise lies the very simple idea of being completely betrayed by the institution of medicine, one most of us place a lot of faith in, especially since we ourselves are uneducated in this field.
Personally-speaking, this was the very first aspect of the novel which hooked me, especially since it has a concrete basis in our real world. As a matter of fact, I think this medical thriller could also pass as being classified under the horror genre.
Without getting into spoiler territory, Cook combines his immense creativity with his acute knowledge of medical procedures and human body to come up with some profoundly unsettling scenarios and imagery which will likely stay with me for a long time.
The realm of medicine itself is explored in fascinating detail, and I should warn you, there are enough complex medical terms where you’ll likely have to do some outside research of your own if you want to understand one hundred percent of it.
Rest assured, Cook doesn’t simply throw Latin terms around for the mere sake of extending your time with his book; more often than not my extracurricular research led me to discover some curious little facts or truths about medicine. Alternatively, you could try mostly ignoring those moments, and while you will lose out on a small bit, in relation to the plot you won’t miss much, if anything at all.
Susan the Unstoppable
Though the author certainly plays a tour-de-force when it comes to integrating medicine into the story in all sorts of ways, in the end I found Susan and her investigation to be no less interesting than any of the other elements.
First thing’s first though: despite being a thriller, the plot does move along at a relatively slow pace, especially when we compare it to what we’ve grown accustomed to in the genre. It certainly rewards to reader for their patience, but one must have some in the first place.
In any case, Susan herself is an easily likeable character I was more than happy to follow from start to finish. She is strong-willed, observant, intelligent, perseverant and courageous when the time comes, but never is any of her attributes stretched to such an extreme where she becomes unbelievable. She always feels like a real person facing off against overwhelming odds, and she is subjected to the limitations someone of her stature would be.
As for the mystery itself, while it does require a certain suspension of disbelief in the end, it is by no means completely outlandish or anything of the sort. It is tightly-crafted, with Cook having visibly thought of every plot hole he could plug and detail he needed to fix. As we slowly see more and more of it the intensity also picks up after a fashion, with the threat level to Susan’s life and some of her colleagues visibly rising.
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The ending definitely offers a good degree of satisfaction, but be warned it does have a cliffhanger… although I think most, if not everyone who enjoys Coma will more than likely take well to the sequel.
The Final Verdict
Coma by Robin Cook is an illustrious milestone in literature, establishing a new genre by telling a captivating story where the author mixes his knowledge of medicine with his expansive imagination. The mystery, the characters and the setting are all crafted with immense care, and despite the slower pace a sense of tension constantly reigns supreme.
If you enjoy medical thrillers and mysteries which would be more aptly-classified as slow burners, then I have no doubt you’d find Coma very interesting.
Robin Cook is an American novelist and physicist whose writings more often than not focus on the topics of medicine and public health.
In the realm of books, his greatest achievement has no doubt been the foundation of the medical thriller genre with the 1977 novel Coma, adapted to both film and television.
Many of his other works have found their way onto The New York Times Best Seller List, including Sphinx, Harmful Intent and Terminal.