At a time when it can seem like we’re all living in a medical thriller, it can be oddly therapeutic to escape to a world where the worst case scenario is actually far worse than our own.
Maybe that’s why we’ve gotten so many requests for our favorite medical thriller recommendations over the past few weeks.
Over the past decade, we’ve had the pleasure of reading lot of great thrillers rooted in everything from extreme psychology…
….to horrific inhumane science experiments…
…the terror inflicted on psychiatric patients…
…physical and psychic experiments implemented on kidnapped children…
…rogue government drug approval agents…
…fertility treatments invented to save humanity…
…technologies planted inside the human body…
…and seemingly unstoppable plagues spreading across the planet.
Some our staff favorites became best sellers, while others stayed under the radar.
Looking at our list, the diversity of author backgrounds is apparent. Included among the represented authors are real-life medical doctors, scientists, first-time novelists who are passionate about government corruption, and one of the most legendary writers of our time.
Here’s our list of the best medical thrillers of the past decade.
1) Silent Source by James Marshall Smith
A first-rate medical thriller that established new author James Marshall Smith as one of the most exciting new voices in the genre.
Among local law enforcement, scientist Damon Keane is something of a celebrity in Atlanta. So when Atlanta police’s Special Operations Section find themselves faced with three ghoulish deaths and no solid leads, the mayor himself finds Dr. Keane – who is volunteering at a camp for wayward teens – and cajoles him into joining the effort.
As Keane reluctantly returns to Atlanta, more victims emerge. He suspects radiation poisoning, but after a full battery of tests, there’s no trace of polonium-210, thallium or any other bacteria or virus. Still, Keane is convinced that these people have been murdered. But how?
Riding along with Keane as he discovers the answer to that question is pure joy. In a genre full of eccentric detectives and narrative gimmicks, author James Marshall Smith distinguishes Keane with the plausible investigative processes he employs to get his answers. All Keane needs is a worthy adversary, and Smith gives him an exceptional one in a technician at a local oncology center that turns out to be far more than he seems. The ensuing race against the clock spirals into a breathtaking and readily believable global manhunt.
Smith, founding chief of the radiation studies branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obviously brings a wealth of knowledge to the subject, but he never lets the story get so bogged down in the details that it ceases to entertain. It’s not going too far to say that every note rings true. If you like medical thrillers based upon actual science, put Silent Source at the top of your reading queue.
2) The Institute by Stephen King
This medical-and-psychic thriller ranks among King’s best.
As in Dr. Sleep, villains with terrifying psychic powers are hell bent on leveraging the powers of gifted children.
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes.
Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon.
They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts.
There are no scruples here.
If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal.
As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help.
But no one has ever escaped.
Brave readers will not be disappointed.
3) Yellow Death by Alex Lettau
The Bottom Line: Yellow Death is an irresistible medical thriller with the urgency of Contagion and the gritty conspiratorial intrigue of Narcos. One of the year’s best thrillers.
When two cases of fatal hepatitis C are reported in a small town, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sends medical detective Dr. Kris Jensen to Mississippi to investigate. Both victims were junkies. A fatal hep C cluster is almost unheard of, and Dr. Jensen becomes convinced that a previously unknown virus is responsible for the deaths.
And what could be worse than an outbreak of an unknown disease?
Losing the expert charged with the investigation. While drawing heart blood from a corpse, Dr. Jensen is accidentally stuck with a needle and infected with the fatal mystery disease.
Author Alex Lettau, the pen name of an American infectious disease specialist, sets the hook deep and early with a series of fast-paced early chapters that would translate well to the big screen.
Lettau frames Dr. Jensen with a truly unique conundrum: does she tell anyone she’s infected? If she does, she would surely get pulled off the investigation into the outbreak, which could lessen the probability of finding answers to the virus’ origin.
After heading to New Orleans in search of a “sparkly” new heroin that could be the cause, she uncovers a conspiracy set in motion by another federal agency.
The futility of the war on narcotic drugs, and the blowback by heavy-handed American tactics, has rarely been more smartly illustrated.
The entirety of the investigation feels authentic, from the motivations of shadowy DEA agents down to the sketchy lab test results.
Just as the stakes seem as high as they could possibly get, Lettau raises them again: when Dr. Jensen travels to the Venezuelan jungle to investigate the origin of the virus, she finds that her infection isn’t the only thing threatening her life.
4) The First Conception by Nesley Clerge
The author of the addictive Amazon #1 bestselling psychological thriller The Anatomy of Cheating shows his narrative range in The First Conception: The Rise of Eris. In an alternate reality, a genetically engineered blight has caused most of humanity to become infertile. As in vitro techniques fail, the human race faces inevitable extinction.
The fear of mass infertility has been a common sci-fi theme over the past few decades, including P. D. James’ novel The Children of Men, Margaret Atwoods’ The Handmaid’s Tale and the upcoming The Completionist by Siobhan Adcock. With The First Conception, author Nesly Clerge has written a worthy entry into the canon.
But unlike Atwood, James or Adcock, the cause of infertility isn’t caused by an environmental disaster, but rather, by a powerful team of women who have had enough of male dominance and sexual abuse.
The book focuses on traumatized molecular biologist Dr. Katherine Eris Barnes, the child of a poor single mother with a dizzying array of abusive lovers.
Clerge’s depiction of Barnes’ home life is remarkable for its psychological and physical brutality, but the result is a smart, imaginative revenge fantasy wrapped in a terrifying medical thriller.
While Barnes cops to her plot to destroy humanity in the very first chapter, discovering how she does it – and why – is well worth the journey.
Book clubs will surely argue over whether her actions are fully justified, but there’s no denying the timing of this book in the social zeitgeist.
If The First Conception had been written by a woman, some would surely call it the ultimate #metoo thriller. But in Clerge’s capable hands, it’s still an excellent start to a promising trilogy. Bravo.
5) The Madhouse by Lawrence Matrick, M.D.
The Madhouse is the story of New Orleans native Alex Gage, who struggles out of poverty to become not only a respected psychiatrist, but also an aspiring reformist. The story begins in the deep south as Alex is born with a clubfoot that keeps him from being drafted (it would be surgically repaired later in life). Despite his ascension to higher learning, he finds himself working as a physician in a Canadian mental institution – a nightmarish shop of horrors that would make Dante reconsider his definition of hell.
Alex’s colleague, Dr. Aaron Levy, a former Italian mafia thug, spends his time sexually assaulting the nurses, plying them with cocaine and morphine, abusing his patients, and talking about himself in the third person (“Aaron is poorly prepared.”)
Alex’s life takes a turn for the worse when he stupidly confides in Aaron, telling him about a deadly encounter with a man his mother knew back home. Shortly afterwards, Aaron begins blackmailing him, repeatedly requesting that he break the law in exchange for his silence. It’s a brilliant twist that instantly raises the book’s already sky-high stakes.
Alex’s girlfriend, Monique, organizes the women to march and force the early changes to the primitive abortion laws in the country. The nuns, the female ward supervisors, Rani, an East Indian female doctor, and the female nurses endeavor to help Alex change the oppressive attitudes towards the institutionalized orphaned children, the aboriginals, the mentally deficient and intellectually deprived patients. Working together, will they be able to change the course of treatment as to prefrontal lobotomies, and to abolish illegal female sterilization?
Author Lawrence Matrick, M.D. has drawn an extremely evocative world where danger lurks around every corner, especially where medicine is practiced. But The Madhouse is more than just a gritty crime thriller. Matrick, himself a former psychiatrist with experience as a mental hospital resident, employs the medical practices of 20th-century psychiatry to terrifying effect. Note that The Madhouse is not for the faint of heart. The book is chock full of bone-chilling afflictions and remedies, ranging from venereal disease to lobotomies and shock therapy, and Matrick includes them without ever seeming gratuitous. As an added bonus, Matrick has added an epilogue detailing a brief history of the evolution of mental institutions.
6) Blood Red Mist by Michael Allan Scott
In Michael Allan Scott’s second Jena Halpern series book, the formidable psychic boards a plane to Washington, D.C., where her terminally ill stepfather is hospitalized in nearby Silver Springs Silver Spring. The trip is a powder keg of emotion, as the two haven’t spoken in years. At one time in the distant past, the two came perilously close to having an affair.
En route to the hospital, Jena instructs the Uber driver to change course and take her to the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. She’s not entirely sure why – it’s just a strong feeling. In alternate chapters told from the point of view of FDA Director Thomas A. Friedman, M.D., we gradually understand that Jena is right. Something is very wrong at the FDA. In exchange for ten million dollars and a trip to the Cayman Islands, Friedman is willing to approve a dangerous new antidepressant. But before that can happen, his contact goes missing.
Is there a connection between Jena’s stepfather’s lymphoma and whatever is happening at the FDA?
Blood-Red Mist finds Jena Halpern trusting her intuition and very real extrasensory powers. At the same time, she realizes that she is extremely vulnerable – the powerful physical effects of her visions have actually hospitalized her in the past. She must somehow learn to control them, and this inner struggle is one of the most compelling stories in fiction today.
Aside from Scott’s jaw-dropping character development, he has created a wholly believable medical thriller that is rooted in reality. Blood-Red Mist comes at a time when accusations about FDA corruption appears to be at an all-time high, and the consequences of big pharma’s seemingly unchecked power is terrifying. The book isn’t just one of the year’s best thrillers. It’s also one of the most important.
7) The Happy Chip by Dennis Meredith
Human beings have used mood-altering drugs – ranging from roots to prescription drugs – for thousands of years. Author Dennis Meredith’s The Happy Chip takes the idea a step further by imagining a world in which an implanted nanochip measures and regulates the hormones that help determine happiness.
Chippers, as they are called, don’t just feel better. They also appear to make better choices, leading to financial stability, improved relationships and better dietary choices. But soon after science writer Brad Davis heads to NeoHappy, Inc’s headquarters to write a biography of wealthy chip inventor Mary Fallon, he learns of a string of murders related to a new nanochip. Is NeoHappy – or even Fallon himself – using the chip to control humanity?
Credit Meredith, author of the excellent Cerulean’s Secret and Wormholes, for devising his most timely novel yet. In an age when technologies such as the iPhone, social media apps and the FitBit have been embraced by billions despite significant privacy tradeoffs, Meredith brilliantly assesses the risks of the next inevitable step
(reports that DARPA is developing a similarly mood-altering nanochip have been rampant in recent years).
Is the nightmare he portrays really all that far-fetched? The fact that such biotech seems within reach even now makes this expertly paced novel all the more urgent.
In Brad, Meredith has found an exemplary vehicle for channeling our hopes, dreams and fears about biotech.
Readers will be hooked form the get go, and by the time the last page is read, fans of Douglas E. Richards and A.G. Riddle may find a new favorite author.
8) The Immortality Trigger by Douglas Misquita
A powerhouse medical thriller with all the right ingredients: a secret order, illicit wonder drugs and a relentless hero that never gives up.
Nazi Germany, 1945. As a ragged group of loyal soldiers await the inevitable Allied invasion, hope for the Third Reich is all but lost until SS Oberstgruppenführer Frederick Mauer arrives in one of the country’s last remaining aircraft. After an inspiring speech, Mauer leads a small company of men on a mission to Schloss Schwarzer Adler, Castle of the Black Eagle, nestled deep in the Black Forest.
They arrive just before the Allied raiding party, where the remaining survivors fight to the death in order to allow Mauer to escape to a laboratory deep beneath the castle. Mauer is unfazed by the circus of medical horrors awaiting him in the castle laboratory, telling the geneticist Hauptsturmführer Stahl, “We must implement our contingency plan.” He is speaking, of course, of the Vesuvius Group. Then he vanishes without a trace.
Cut to Africa in 2014, where Douglas Misquita’s cinematic fifth novel is no less gripping. What is the Vesuvius Group?What happened to Stahl and Mauer? Is there any connection between the castle laboratory and modern-day drugs designed to enhance human longevity being tested in China, Colombia and elsewhere?
INTERPOL has made dismantling the Vesuvius group a long-term goal, concluding that mercenary Luc Fortesque the man for the job witnessed the attack that eliminated most of the Group.
The former head of security for Future Energy Group, Fortesque is a physical, scrappy hero who’s willing to take a punch – or 100 – to give one. But he’s also analytical enough to tie together the book’s many far-flung narrative threads.
Fans of Lee Child are going to love Fortesque (and want more of him).
As he did in his spectacular thriller about the global migrant crisis, Diablo, Misquita’s writing doesn’t so much flow as it growls. Each action sequence is felt fully, and with a storyteller of Misquita’s caliber, you just may need Dramamine before the first chapter is done.