"Charlatans" (G.P. Putnam's Sons), by Robin Cook
For his thirty-fifth 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's career is on the fast track. But when a series of anesthesia-related deaths rock 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 flaunting 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, are 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.