As all chronically ill people know, the medical world can be full of horrors. Whether you’re dealing with body-changing symptoms, or trying to convince unbelieving people that something is very wrong, there are a lot of crossovers with the medical field and the scariest stories in medical mystery books. Even people who generally enjoy good health can find hospitals frightening places, or fear the dangers of surgery or the side-effects of medication.
Because of these fears, it’s understandable that many horrors, mysteries, and thrillers have focused around medical issues or institutions. The Yellow Wallpaper sees a woman spiral into madness after following her doctor’s medical advice, and in many of Agatha Christie’s stories, a doctor falls under suspicion of using their medical practice to commit murder, and sometimes, this suspicion is justified. The medical field is a place of brilliant innovation and lifesaving hard work from medical professionals, but it’s also a place where many of us will feel at our most vulnerable. During operations, you literally put your life in a stranger’s hands; taking prescription medication involves trusting that the drugs you’re ingesting won’t harm you (or at least, that the side effects won’t be as bad as the illness). Engaging with medicine involves a lot of trust, and when that trust is broken, it’s horrifying, as we can see from real-life medical monsters like the cases of Harold Shipman or Christopher Duntsch.
As with so many subjects, real fears create compelling stories. Many thriller and mystery stories focus on the medical field, creating instant high stakes and staggering consequences. Here are some of the best medical mystery books for anyone who’s a little nervous about their next check-up.
Doing Harm by Kelly Parsons
In this chilling medical thriller, surgeon Steve Mitchell’s life is turned upside-down when he botches a surgery and his patient dies. Already facing possible career-ending questions, Mitchell’s safety is threatened further when it becomes clear that the death was no accident; that someone in the hospital is deliberately killing patients and setting Steve up to take the fall.
A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang
Set against the background of the flu epidemic that hit just after the end of the First World War, A Beautiful Poison follows Allene, a young socialite who starts to suspect that some of the deaths of people she knows cannot be blamed on the virus. Believing that a poisoner is at work, Allene starts to investigate, along with medical examiner Jasper and her close friend Birdie.
The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell
Part of Cornwell’s highly-acclaimed Scarpetta series, The Body Farm sees chief medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta investigating the murder of a young girl. Reaching dead end after dead end, Scarpetta turns to the titular Body Farm, a famous forensic institute where experts can study corpses in various states of decomposition.
Under the Knife by Tess Gerritsen
Attorney David Ransom believes he’s been hired for a straightforward medical malpractice case, planning to take a doctor down for negligently causing the death of her patient. However, when he meets Dr. Kate Chesne, she tells him that she’s being framed — and when another body turns up, Ransom becomes more inclined to believe her.
The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart
The debut novel by the co-host of hit true crime podcast Morbid, The Butcher and the Wren draws on Urquhart’s own experiences as an autopsy technician. Forensic pathologist Dr. Wren Muller is investigating a serial killer who carries out medical experiments on his victims, desperately searching for clues as the killer closes in on her.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Nurse Korede is used to cleaning up the messes left by her young, beautiful sister Ayoola, who has an unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends. While Ayoola insists she always acts in self-defense, Korede is far from convinced; but she loves her sister, and would never turn her in. But when Ayoola starts dating Korede’s long-time crush, a doctor at the hospital where she works, Korede must decide who she will save.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings
After the death of her beloved grandmother, Lena Johnson, in an attempt to help pay off her family’s medical debts, takes a job at the remote Lakewood in Michigan. Lena’s new job is highly paid and, at first, seemingly low-stress — all she has to do is take part in some medical experiments. Drawing on the real-world horrors of the medicalised torture of Black Americans, Lakewood is a chilling medical thriller.
Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
If you like a supernatural twist with your medical mystery, Strange Practice is the book for you. Dr. Greta Helsing runs a medical institute for vampires, werewolves, and other mythical creatures. Her life of happily treating her patients is disrupted when a cult of murderous monks starts killing the supernatural creatures that Helsing works with, and she must stop them before it’s too late.
The Patient by Jane Shemilt
This suspenseful thriller centres on Rachel, a successful and well-established GP, who finds herself crossing ethical and legal boundaries as she starts an affair with her new patient, Luc. As Rachel’s life begins to spiral out of control, with her family falling apart and another patient potentially stalking her, she feels that things can’t get worse — and then one of her colleagues is murdered.
If you want to delve into some real-world medical mysteries, there are plenty of suggestions on our definitive list of 100 Must-Read Books About the History of Medicine. If you’ve been bitten by the mystery bug, try 15 of the Best Mystery Thrillers That’ll Keep You Hooked to the Page.