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A Medical Thriller

From the Dr. Mark Lin Medical Thrillers series

by Anthony Lee

Pub Date: May 24th, 2024
Publisher: Self

In this installment of Lee’s Dr. Mark Lin Medical Thrillers series, the intrepid physician vies with a mysterious computer hacker.

As the story begins, Southern California-based, board-certified internist Dr. Mark Lin arrives for his usual shift at Anaheim’s Ivory Memorial Hospital. Lin is a hospitalist—a doctor who exclusively practices inpatient care—and he’s world-weary about the slow churn of neglectful patients he’s always dealing with (“Sometimes, that’s what my job comes down to: wiping away physical sickness within the morally sick,” he grouses. “Prolonging people’s lives just so they could go back to being a nuisance, a troublemaker, a menace to society”). Though his job can be tedious, Lin is at least grateful that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic has passed. He and his colleagues are startled by the announcement that in-house company emails are off-limits while the hospital deals with an attack of malware. The offending program, “Lucifer’s Worm,” is crippling computer systems worldwide in a kind of “cyber pandemic” that breaches Ivory Memorial and makes Dr. Lin’s life a nightmare. Patient names and medication orders are switched and falsified as the hacker, nicknamed Doctor Lucifer, fine-tunes his attacks. The hospital’s tech support is outclassed (“the hacker has multiple ways to evade us,” they tell Dr. Lin. “We’re playing digital whack-a-mole”), and the real-world consequences soon involve Dr. Lin in violence as he battles both his own disillusionment (“Patients used to trust doctors,” he complains. “Not anymore. Now they look up medical stuff on the internet, like they want to trap us in a gotcha moment”) and his growing suspicions of one particular colleague.

Lee knowledgeably and very effectively builds up the background tension of his novel, which stems from the frightening extent to which the mechanisms of health care—including medical records, medication orders, and treatment protocols—have become digitized and therefore vulnerable to the kind of cyber-attacks carried out by Doctor Lucifer. Dr. Lin is a dour but involving protagonist; Lee makes him more than sufficiently flawed to elicit readers’ empathy. The specter of Covid-19 (both the stress of the pandemic itself and the lingering bitterness some characters still feel over the government’s management of stimulus checks) is an intriguing element that makes an unexpected return in the narrative as the crisis’ long-term effects on Lin become more and more obvious. (“Covid-19 had kept everyone on their toes, turning healthcare workers like me into mindless drones,” he thinks. “The whole time, I never bothered to deprogram and destress.”) Lin’s eventual centrality to the plot is a bit unlikely, and the book’s pacing is often too sluggish for a narrative with the trappings of a medical thriller. Still, the drama of Lin’s personal redemption is unfailingly involving. “Redemption can occur even with the worst people,” he’s told at one point without believing it. But as the tempo of the story increases, he comes closer and closer to thinking that “perhaps there is such a thing as treatment for disease of humanity.”

A compelling if occasionally sedate thriller.