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Book Review: Oath Of Office by Michael Palmer

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Though Oath of Office is only peripherally a “medical thriller,” Michael Palmer has managed to write a gripping and topical political/science thriller revolving around the controversial subject of genetically engineered food crops. Dr. John Meacham has just allowed himself to lose his temper, and verbally abuse a patient for the first time in years. The first time since he nearly lost his medical license for doing the exact same  thing. All those years ago, years of good behavior and a professional approach are lost. Then, he blew up at a patient for continuing to smoke despite a massive heart attack. The medical board gave him a six month suspension and sent him for treatment. The first time his anger was fueled by an honest motive of caring for his patients’ continued health, booze, and working too many hours. And he snapped and let lose a tirade of words that struck to the core and the patient reported him. But now, he has been through anger management, he has been through AA and he has managed to control that temper… until now.

But now, working at a small rural practice, Roberta Jennings has managed to make him snap. She is obese, morbidly so, yet she continues to overeat, continues to not even take serious any of a number of diets he has prescribed. And even without the booze, even without the long hours, he has snapped again and let lose with another profanity-laced tirade. Right after Jennings left, threatening to call the board again, he realizes that his entire staff heard him. He realizes that every patient in the waiting room could not have helped bearing witness to his verbal abuse. He sees no way out — the board will surely take away his license to practice medicine and no excuse will spare him. The thought enters his mind that if he eliminates the witnesses, his staff and the waiting patients, if he leaves ‘no witnesses,’ so it’ll only be Jennings’ word against his. He takes the pistol from the locked drawer in his office. The pistol he placed there after a fellow doctor’s practice was robbed. And he empties it. Seven people are left dead, and then Meacham realizes he has done a very bad thing. The board will never let him keep his license now. So he turns the gun on himself.

Seven people dead. But not Meacham, he is still alive. Meacham’s sponsor in the ‘Physicians Wellness Office’ (a group modeled on real life programs to help and monitor doctors recover from addiction, and become once again a functioning and vital part of the medical community.) is ER Doctor Lou Welcome, himself a recovering addict. Welcome gets the call from the head of the PWO, who never agrees with Welcome’s treatment plan for addicts, so that his star client has gone over the edge and killed seven people, but himself still survives and is in the ER at another hospital close by. Meacham jumps in his car and starts the trip to rural Deland Regional. Upon his arrival, he takes note that the ER staff is acting strangely for having a gunshot head wound patient, and the attending has started a procedure in the ER that should never be performed there. before he can intervene Meacham himself is dead.

Dr. Welcome, who in the four years he has been Meacham’s sponsor has gotten to know Meacham’s wife. He offers to drive her home and comfort her, but as inexplicable as Meacham’s action were, and as shocking as his sudden death is Mrs. Meacham insists on driving so Welcome goes along as the passenger. On the drive, Mrs. Meacham causes an accident because of eradicate driving brought on by an obsession with a driver with a busted tail light.

Meanwhile, in near by Washington D.C. the President of the United States is going through a crisis of his own. His polls are at an all-time low, partially because his wife’s friend, and his Secretary Of Agriculture was caught in a sex scandal with an under age prostitute. The first lady Darlene Malory is caught in the middle as the Secretary was a childhood friend. When she has a private and impromptu meeting with the Secretary, who swears to her that he was setup but he doesn’t know why. Because of this the President is angry with his wife and is acting short tempered in ways that are new to their relationship. Then when a “deep throat” type of character also tells her that there is more to the story than meets the eye, she starts, against her husbands demand, a clandestine investigation.

Meanwhile, when Welcome notices that a good number of people in the rural community where Meacham lived are also acting oddly at times, losing their inhibitions and committing acts that defy common sense, he starts digging as well and their investigations are bound to meet in the middle.

Palmer has put together not only a very topical plot (see these recent news articles here & here)

but a complex plot that stretches from small rural farms and roadside diners to the highest branches of power within the government. Along the way we meet some very human and real characters, including Dr. Welcome who could be any brilliant and talented doctor today, who has had his personal and professional life marred by addiction, and has recovered, dealt with it, and made the best of the lessons his mistakes cost him.

Palmer also succeeds in introducing a likeable and believable supporting cast of characters, from city minorities to rural waitresses. Even the antagonists aren’t one dimensional. There are a couple of minor glitches in the logic of the story, but they are very minor and most readers won’t even notice them. The story also requires readers to stretch their imaginations and realm of believability, but though the story is filled with ‘conspiracy theory’ topics, they are backed by the current science of today, with a warning of what could and probably will be tomorrow. All in all, Oath of Office is another great thriller that is more politics than medical and Palmer proves he is still on top of his game after 16 previous great books.

Michael Palmer, M.D., trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine, and is now an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s physician health program. In 1978 he read Robin Cook’s classic thriller Coma . Cook was an upper classman at Wesleyan and Palmer figured if Cook could write a best seller, so could he. And he did. His first nine medical thrillers all hit the New York Times Bestseller List. Quite an accomplishment for someone whose writing in college was considered dull. An avid read of escapist fiction and a huge fan of authors like Robert Ludlum, Alistair McLean, Eric Ambler, John D. MacDonald, Agatha Christie he’d read a book or two a week. When he’s not writing he still works part-time at Massachusetts Medical Society as an Associate Director of their physician health program, helping doctors with physical illness, mental illness, or substance abuse, put their lives together.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.