Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mystery Writers Are Like Scientists

 Writing a mystery novel is similar to conducting a science experiment in several ways.
·      Writers and scientists both do research.

·      They both organize their observations into a whole, which writers call plots and scientists call hypotheses.

·      They both test and refine their “whole.” Writers edit their prose; scientists run additional experiments.

·      Both require a lot of hard work to gain occasional flashes of insights. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, they’re “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Why did I drag you through this discussion? I’m trying to explain why so many scientists and physicians became writers of mysteries and thrillers. Consider Michael Crichton (a physician by training), Kathy Reichs (a forensic anthropologist), Robin Cook (a physician). I’m also explaining how as a retired biology professor I came to write mystery/suspense novels with tidbits of science.

Through this discussion, I hope you learn how bits of science add realism to a mystery.

Let’s start with my thriller, I Saw You in Beirut. In this thriller, a woman’s past provides clues for the extraction of a nuclear scientist from Iran (

Did you know? In the early 1960s, scientists identified zinc deficiency in peasants in Iran. At that time, two to three percent of the villagers in some regions of Iran didn't pass the physical for the army because of stunted growth. Dr. James Halstead, Sr. who was married to President’s Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna, headed the research team at Shiraz. Surprised?

I created Doc Steinhaus, a fictional character in I Saw You in Beirut, who worked on the project in Shiraz as a grad student. He was a logical way to “show not tell” readers about science in Iran and advance the plot. Let’s face it most foreign agents don’t look or act like James Bond, but they can be a lot more nuanced.
Now how about Malignancy? In this suspense novel, a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba (

When I visited Cuba in 2013, I learned Cuban researchers had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat non-small cell lung cancer. This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells, and kills the cancer cells. For those surprised about the sophistication of this work, please note the researchers had spent a lot time at Harvard despite the embargo.

I also read the editorial in Science (6/6/2014) on scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba. I thought Sara Almquist, as an epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu ( and Ignore the Pain (, would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba.

Of course, Sara gets involved in a lot more than science in both novels; they wouldn’t be thrillers without danger. Why don’t you read them and learn a little thrilling science?