Diagnosis Death by Richard L. Mabry, MD

by John T. Cullen

Dr. Richard L. Mabry is a retired physician who now writes both fiction and nonfiction. His first novel, Code Blue, was published by Abingdon Press in April, 2010, followed by Medical Error in September, and Diagnosis Death in April 2011.

Publishers Weekly reviewers said this about Diagnosis Death, the third novel in Richard Mabry’s Prescription for Trouble series: “…for fans of the gory, gritty details of patient trauma and hospital gossip, this book certainly will be an enjoyable page-turner.”

Richard calls his fiction “Medical Suspense with Heart.” He is a retired physician and medical school professor, which gives him an unrivaled depth of experience and judgment to draw upon in writing medical fiction.

Reviewer Elizabeth Ponder of Booklist describes his fiction as “…fast-paced, pleasingly arcane, and laced with traces of subdued faith and romance… [should] satisfy fans of medical suspense, and readers who enjoy edgy inspirational fiction.”

* * * *

Richard L. Mabry’s Prescription for Trouble series includes the following novels:

In the first, Code Blue, the title refers to both the cardiac emergency that faces Dr. Cathy Sewell at the hospital and a sort of alarm code of the heart in her personal life. She flees to her hometown, seeking peace after her world falls apart, but finds that someone there wants her gone…as in “dead.” Cathy writes a prescription that nearly kills the town banker, precipitating a series of crises. Cathy’s high school sweetheart, lawyer Will Kennedy, offers to help, which leads to a romantic complication. And she can’t decide whether hospital chief of staff Dr. Marcus Bell is a friend or a foe.

The second novel in the series, Medical Error, features Dr. Anna McIntyre. Anna’s life is forever changed by the theft of identity, both hers and her patient’s. An unknown criminal is writing prescriptions in her name, and her credit is in ruins. After receiving a lab report indicating a positive HIV test with her name on it, Anna launches into a desperate investigation to get to the bottom of the problem. Two men have prominent roles in her life. Dr. Nick Valentine is a cynic who carries a load of guilt. Attorney Ross Donovan is a recovering alcoholic. Anna’s path takes her to the brink of death as she tries to unravel the mystery.

The most recent novel, Diagnosis Death, features yet another prescription for trouble. Threatening midnight calls follow widowed Dr. Elena Gardner from one city to another, prolonging her grief. Her own colleagues echo whispers that started after her comatose husband died in the ICU, followed by a mysterious death during her training. When a third happens at her new hospital, the whispers find a name: “Mercy killer!” But Elena does not defend herself. A dark secret keeps her lips sealed—what is the secret? Two physicians, widowers themselves, offer support– but is it safe to trust either of them with her secret?

*****

Welcome back, Richard. We had the pleasure of interviewing you in early 2010 about the publication of your debut novel, Code Blue. Now you’re celebrating the release of your third novel. How does it feel to be this far along with your writing?

It’s been a wild ride. When I first started writing, I was hoping to get one book published. Now, in addition to my non-fiction book, I’ll have three novels published in the space of a year. I still can’t believe it.

You chose to write the stories of three fictional characters—all women, all physicians working at hospitals. How similar are they as persons? How does the theme ‘prescription for trouble’ unify them?

These women have made it through the rigors of medical school and specialty training, so they have that in common. Beyond that, they’re all different, yet they have a common bond–they’re in trouble. Sometimes it’s of their own making, sometimes they’re just a victim, but in every case they need to act in order to get through and survive.

What is different about the three heroines? Why three different fictional women, rather than one whose story continues across all three books? Both are equally valid and challenging modes of fiction. In a way, it seems you gain the opportunity, each time, for a fresh start and an entirely new story, as opposed to a series limited to one or two characters whose story develops over a longer span.

Dr. Cathy Sewell, from Code Blue, is fighting her own personal demons, causing her to retreat to her hometown, where, instead of the peace she seeks, she finds trouble. Not only is Dr. Anna McIntyre, in Medical Error, the victim of identity theft, but her patient is as well–and in his case, it was fatal. Dr. Elena Gardner is struggling to get over the death of her husband while being accused of his mercy killing and hounded by an unknown caller. Each woman has weaknesses and discovers reserves she didn’t know she had. They’re alike, but different, if that makes sense.

You’re exactly right about why I chose to write three free-standing novels instead of a series. This way, I was able to get a new start with each one. Although it made me work a bit to establish characters, it kept my protagonists fresh in my mind and–hopefully–that of my readers. Also, the nice thing about freestanding novels is that it’s not necessary to have read the first to enjoy the second, although I’d hope if that happens readers will go back and pick up the others in the series.

What excites you as a reader? What relevant fiction authors do you like to read? How do you carry that excitement over to your writing? Clearly, any author must be very motivated to go through all the hard work—and to live with his characters for the time and struggle it takes to properly and interestingly unfold their stories.

I learned by reading the works of the late Robert B. Parker, Ross Thomas, and John D. MacDonald. What they had in common was the ability to keep me turning pages without frightening me or grossing me out. I just wanted to see what their protagonists were up to next. Their characters were easy to identify with, and I’ve tried to carry that through into my own writing. Of course, an author identifying with his characters makes it especially tough if he realizes has to kill off a character, which I’ve had to do. I still chuckle at the story about the author whose editor chastised him for murdering one of his characters. His response makes sense to anyone who is a seat-of-the-pants writer, as I am: “I didn’t kill him. I found him dead.”

You have a knack for charging your characters with a lot of conflict, both interior and exterior. That makes readers curious how both their environment (dangerous, spooky people whose motives are not clear) and their personal conflicts will play out. Where do you come up with those combinations? How do you juggle those balls simultaneously?

Until you asked that question, I’d never thought much about it, just done it automatically. The situations I create for my characters come from the lesson taught me by Donald Maass: Think about the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist–then make it worse. The external conflicts are conscious choices, the internal conflicts are more the natural consequence of the type of character I’ve created.

Do you write from actual experiences? I imagine hospitals must be full of real-life drama. Does one even need to make some of this stuff up?

In thirty-six years of medicine (private practice and as a medical school professor), I’ve seen a lot. However, since I tend to devise scenes and situations that fit the book, most of the time I make them up. That, in turn, sends me scurrying to the reference books to make sure I got things right.

How do you feel about writing fiction from a female viewpoint? You are no stranger at that—famous masters like Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) excelled at this. And woman authors have written the male viewpoint (Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot). It is an interesting twist of convention in the history of literature. You made a choice not to write from the perspective of, say, a male physician. Any compelling reason?

As one of my professors in medical school used to say, “You can teach a white mouse in three times.” I wrote three (four if you count one total re-write) unsuccessful novels before getting my first contract, each one with a male protagonist. Then I discovered that 85% of the readership of Christian fiction was female, and apparently they like books with female protagonists. So I switched.

People ask how I write from a female point of view so believably, and I have to give credit to my wife, Kay. She’s my first reader, my biggest fan, and my severest critic. There are a number of times when she says, “A woman wouldn’t do/say/think that.” I’ve learned to listen to her, and it works.

In what manner, and to what extent, do your personal religious views enter into the story?

I’ve chosen to write for the Christian fiction market. Publishers define this primarily as writing from a Christian world-view, which is natural for me, since that’s the direction of my own faith. That doesn’t mean that my books have conversion scenes and are full of preaching, although occasionally the protagonist or someone else might refer to a line of Scripture. My characters have the same flaws as the rest of us. But when the reader comes to the last page, I’d like them to look back and realize there was a life lesson or two in the book, even though I didn’t hit them over the head with it.

Any other favorite authors you’d like to mention? How about films, theater, anything else that has shaped or influenced you as a novelist?

I’ve been fortunate enough to become friends with some excellent authors whose work I enjoy and from whom I’ve learned a great deal. James Scott Bell and Michael Palmer come immediately to mind. When I go to the movies or theatre, I’m more interested in losing myself in comedy or music than dramas, so these don’t affect my writing much. However, I do watch a couple of TV shows–The Closer and Blue Bloods–that are good examples of providing an interesting story arc and hooking the viewer.

What’s next on your agenda? Another novel? Another series? Or maybe some nonfiction? What are your plans?

Funny that you should ask. My publisher, Abingdon Press, and I figured there would be three books in the Prescription For Trouble series. However, when my agent sent out a proposal for my next novel of medical suspense to several publishers, Abingdon said, “Let’s do a fourth book in the series.” Now Lethal Remedy is complete, and will be published September 1. And, since authors have to try to stay ahead, I’m writing another novel of medical suspense, this one with a male protagonist and a strong female second lead, as well as preparing a synopsis for a medical novel with less of a thriller component.

My non-fiction book about grief, The Tender Scar: Life AfterThe Death Of A Spouse, was written because of a specific situation, and I’m pleased to say that it keeps selling well and ministering to those who’ve lost a loved one. However, I don’t have any plans for another non-fiction book in the foreseeable future.

Other plans? Enjoy my grandchildren. Work on my golf game. Read. And keep writing novels so long as I can, whether anyone other than me reads them. Because, as I understand it, that’s a distinguishing character of a writer. They can’t not write. And I guess I qualify.

Thank you, Richard, for another interesting opportunity to peer into your writing life.

*****

The three Prescription for Trouble novels are not Dr. Mabry’s first books. After the death of his first wife, he used journaling as a coping tool after the loss. His journals became the core of a nonfiction book, The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse (Kregel, March 2006). The book offers a profound ministry to those who have lost a loved one, and Dr. Mabry continues to speak to groups about grief and loss.

Richard played semi-pro baseball while in college. As an Air Force Captain, he served as Deputy Commander of the USAF Hospital in the Azores, and was decorated for saving the life of a local child. He is an ordained Deacon in the Baptist Church, and has been a Sunday school teacher and choir soloist.

When Richard is not writing, he’s busy being a husband and grandfather, and working on 101 other things that retired people do. A man of endless humor and persistence, he says: “I continue working fruitlessly on improving my golf game.” He is busier now than he ever was while in practice or teaching–and loving it. He says: “Like most authors, I served a long apprenticeship, honing my craft, and now my efforts have been rewarded. Yes I thought I was retiring. Instead, I’ve just shifted gears, and I can hardly wait to see what God has in store for me in the future.”

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