Sunday, November 20, 2011

An Unorthodox Pair O'Docs by Larry Karp

     Larry Karp grew up in Paterson, NJ and New York City. He practiced perinatal medicine (high-risk pregnancy care) and wrote general nonfiction books and articles for 25 years, then, in 1995, he left medical work to begin a second career, writing mystery novels. The backgrounds and settings of Larry's mysteries reflect many of his interests, including musical antiques, medical-ethical issues, and ragtime music. His most recent book, The Ragtime Fool, the third work in a ragtime-based historical mystery trilogy, is set during the ragtime revival of the 1950s.  Larry lives with his wife Myra in Seattle.
     Other mystery novels by Larry Karp include The King of Ragtime and The Ragtime Kid (the first and second books in the trilogy), First Do No Harm, The Midnight Special, Scamming the Birdman, and The Music Box Murders. Larry's mysteries have been finalists for the Daphne Du Maurier and Spotted Owl Awards, and have appeared on the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times Best-Seller Lists.  The Ragtime Kid was San Marino CA's selection for its 2011 One Book/One City Event.
     Larry's nonfiction books include Genetic Engineering: Threat or Promise?, The View From The Vue, and The Enchanted Ear


Larry Karp

     Seventeen years ago, when I left medical work to write mystery novels full-time, there was one background I knew I was not going to write against.  After thirty years of total immersion in complicated pregnancies, I was ready for a clean break from medicine.

     During my medical career, by way of dragging my head out of my job for short stretches, I'd gotten into buying, selling, collecting and restoring antique music boxes.  The world of antiques is full of characters who are, to put it mildly, interesting, and my first three books comprised a series, set in New York, among music box aficionados.  The detective was a neurologist as well as a music box collector - well, why not?  What did I know about the lives of butchers, bakers, or chandlers?  I could have spent a lot of time finding out, or I could've gone ahead and written my first mystery with an amateur detective who used his medical knowledge to track down murderers, but never, ever treated a patient on the page.

     As I approached Book Four in the series, I remembered a story I'd wanted to write since I was a teenager, a book about a junkman who got rich selling scrap metal on the black market during World War II.  I'd made several tries at writing it over the years, but the story never went anywhere.

     Just at that time, I happened to read a newspaper story about a doctor in a small town in Georgia, many years ago, who ran a live-in clinic in his house for young women, mostly from well-off southern families, who found themselves in what then was called The Family Way.  Excuses were made for the girls (as they were then called) while they stayed for months at the doctor's facility until he delivered them and sold their babies to well-off couples looking to adopt.  Some of the people in his town thought the doctor was Satan Incarnate; others thought he was a saint.

     Then I remembered my childhood family doctor in Paterson, NJ, a G.P. with near-supernatural diagnostic abilities.  Instantly, he fused in my mind with the doc in the newspaper story to become Samuel Firestone, M.D., a friend of Murray Fleischman, my fictional junkman, and went right to work, pushing my long-stagnant story forward.  At first I refused to go along with this pushy doctor, but it felt like such a good story, I finally gave in.  We all have our price.  Never say never, ever.  Of FIRST, DO NO HARM, the Booklist reviewer wrote, "A triumph of storytelling - the juggling of the two narratives is flawless-that will hold readers as spellbound as a terrifying tale told 'round the campfire."

     With that story finally out of my system, I spent the next five years writing an historical-mystery trilogy that covered the story of ragtime music.  In the process, I did a ton of research, and enjoyed every minute...except for the nagging thought: what next?  I'd gladly have done another ragtime book, but the third volume of the trilogy clearly had closed the chain.  Anything else ragtime seemed anticlimactic.

     Coming up as I was on fifteen years away from thorny, worrisome obstetrical situations, the difficult memories, like those of childbirth pain itself, had eased considerably.  My mind meandered way back to my time as a research fellow, when I was studying the causes of chromosomal errors, such as those that underlie Down Syndrome.  The work involved laboratory fertilization of mouse eggs, basically the same procedure as was then being done in humans by doctors racing to be first to produce a human baby through in vitro fertilization.  The competition was intense, and I remember thinking, someone could end up murdered.  Then, a few years later, I became Medical Director of the Reproductive Genetics Lab at Seattle's Swedish Medical Center.  After a two-year competition with the University of Washington's team, the Swedish laboratory conceived the first IVF baby in the Pacific Northwest, and I delivered that baby.

     All right, I decided, an IVF-based mystery it would be. But the story wouldn't come - not until I remembered a particular doctor I'd worked with years before.  Most docs I've known really don't behave as if they think they're gods, but this guy could've run Zeus, Wotan, Ahura Mazda, and Jehovah into the ground.  If he'd been in the IVF chase, he'd have won or else, no matter what he might have needed to do.  As Dr. Colin Sanford, he couldn't wait to pit himself against a smart, tenacious police detective, to pull off A PERILOUS CONCEPTION.  And I couldn't wait to see whether he really could do it.

     Now I know.

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