An Evelyn Sutcliffe Medical Suspense Novel
Leah Ruth Robinson, the author of the novels First Cut and Blood Run, is a New York State certified emergency medical technician. She has served in the Emergency Department of St. Luke's Hospital (St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital Center) in New York City and taught Basic Life Support for several years at Lenox Hill Hospital, also in New York City. She currently serves on the national board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and is a member of the steering committee of the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Married to writer John Rousmaniere, she divides her time between Manhattan and Stamford, Connecticut.
An Interview with Leah Ruth Robinson
by Art Taylor
Leah Ruth Robinson's medical training served her well as an emergencymedical technician in the ER of St. Luke's Hospital in New York and also as aBasic Life Support teacher at Lenox Hill Hospital in the same city. But shehas also put that training and experience to a different use: writing herpopular and acclaimed mysteries, including Blood Run, First Cut and herlatest offering, Unnatural Causes-- all featuring Dr. Evelyn Sutcliffe, an ERphysician at Manhattan's University Hospital.
Tragedy strikes close to home in this third novel when poisonousmushrooms possibly intended for Sutcliffe end up instead on the plate (and onthe palate) of one of her dearest friends. Meanwhile, a disturbed young womanstalks both Sutcliffe and her boyfriend, psychiatrist Phil Carchiollo, withwhom the stalker claims to be having an affair. Against a backdrop of a hotlydebated hospital merger and a strike by the nurses' union, Sutcliffestruggles to preserve her relationship and solve the crime before the killerstrikes again.
MysteryNet: What attracted you to getting involved with healthcare?
Robinson: Actually, I wanted to write medical thrillers. A lot ofpeople assume that I was a healthcare provider and then decided to writemystery novels, but actually it was the other way around. For a long time, Iwanted to be a writer but I didn't know what I wanted to write. Then I sawGeorge Lucas on TV and someone asked him, "How did you come to make a movielike Star Wars?" And he replied, "I made the kind of movie I like to watch."A little lightbulb went on in my head, and I said, "I like to read medicalthrillers. I'll write one of those." But I had been one of those kids who wasbad at science, so I had to start from scratch. I did remedial algebra andremedial biology at Columbia University. I went into a program in generalstudies they had at Columbia, designed for people who already have a B.A. butwanted to take a science so they could apply to medical school. I did most ofthe courses except physics, then went on for my EMT training at St.Vincent's. I also became certified to teach basic CPR. While I was doingpre-med classes at Columbia, they made available to students the opportunityto go work in the emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital as a volunteerorderly. So I worked for about four years on Sunday evenings in the ER.
MysteryNet: Do you still work actively in the medical field?
Robinson: I just started again. For awhile, I wasn't working at all inhealthcare. Then I became recertified, did some ER time at St. Vincent's, andrecently met a physician who sponsored me to return to the ER as a volunteerorderly.
MysteryNet: These experiences have obviously served as fodder for yournovels, but how much is based on actual events and how much comes solely fromyour imagination?
Robinson: It's probably half and half. I think that it was Seneca who said,"Anything good is mine." He was speaking of plagiarizing ideas. I read thenewspaper and I get an idea. Then I get in the emergency room and I seesomething and I'll call a physician friend to check out my idea. ForUnnatural Causes, for example, I called a nurse and said, "I want to pumpsomebody's stomach. What's the worst thing that could happen?" She said,"They could aspirate their stomach contents and get adult respiratory distress syndrome." So I went and read up on that, wrote a scene where that happened,and went back to the nurse, who read it and pointed out a few things. So Irewrote it and went to a physician to read it. I went through severalphysicians and nurses this way. Sometimes I'll call a physician or nurse andtell them exactly what I'm doing, so that I'll know how to do it. Then I'llcall a different physician or nurse and say, "You tell me what's wrong withthis patient." It's a constant playing things back and forth, and what I tellthe physicians and nurses depends on what I'm trying to achieve.
MysteryNet: And you did similar research into mushrooms or into erotomania[the stalker's psychological problem] for the latest book?
Robinson: Oh, yes. I ran a MedLine search on both those things. And there's aguy in New York whose mushroom group goes on hikes and looks at mushrooms,picks them, cooks them and eats them. He gives fabulous lectures which areopen to the public. I went to one of those and I went on a mushroom hike withsomebody at Devil's Den in one of Connecticut's state parks. For theerotomania, I read about 40 articles, and there are several books which havecome out about people being stalked. Then I reviewed the history ofanti-stalking legislation in New York so that I would know how the policewould respond to complaints about it. Then I called up the director offorensic psychiatry department at Bellevue and asked him, "OK, you're apsychiatrist and a former patient is stalking you; what are you going to doabout it?"
MysteryNet: Let's shift tacks a little. There are numerous characters in yourwriting with ties to Yale and to boarding school and to the upper crust, boththeir education and their lifestyle. Is this your background?
Robinson: I'm a blue-collar worker girl. My father works for the phonecompany. But I married a guy whose folks were in the social register. So thatbrought me into that circle of people who went to boarding school and IvyLeague colleges. And I have to say I'm like Margaret Mead, like ananthropologist observing the little quirks of the group. I'm completelyfamiliar with all the quirks of the group I grew up in, but this was adifferent group. And I found it absolutely fascinating.
MysteryNet: And what does your husband think of these anthropological studies?
Robinson: He finds it entertaining himself at times. I have a wonderful timegoing sailing with him and his dad, listening to the stories of all thepeople they know. These generational family connections with people you'renot related to but you grew up together, went to the same schools and wentsailing together... it's just a giant network, a huge family.
MysteryNet: Back to medicine. At the heart of Unnatural Causes is a conflictconcerning University Hospital's potential merger and revolving aroundhospital business practices in general. What do you think is the biggestproblem facing American healthcare today?
Robinson: The fact that it's driven by the bottom line. I'm hoping that therewill be legislation soon that will allow people to sue their HMOs, though alot of people I know don't think that's such a hot idea. Since HMOs have comeinto being, most of the healthcare dollars now go into paperwork or intohiring people to argue your stance, whatever it is. The HMOs have hiredpeople to argue that they're not going to pay for what the doctors want. Atthe same time, the doctors have to hire people to call up the HMOs to try toconvince them to pay for things. This is money we could instead be paying ourdoctors. HMOs are supposed to control costs, but they're just becoming moreand more expensive.
MysteryNet: A lighter question now. What's your favorite medical drama: ER orChicago Hope?
Robinson: I watch ER. I confess I've only watched Chicago Hope once or twicebecause I find the stories a little, ah, operatic. ER is going downhill, butI still think it's an excellent program. And my physician tells me shewatches it for continuing medical education. You know, they solicitphysicians across the country to submit their emergency room anecdotes.
MysteryNet: Do you get new information from the show?
Robinson: Sure. This season, for example, they had a new saw for opening thesternum for open heart massages. And I said, I have to look up that saw.
MysteryNet: Given the popularity of medical dramas, are there any plans foryour books to make it to the big screen or the small screen?
Robinson: My agent goes to California four times a year and pitches hisclients, so we'll just wait and see. But I have to admit I have mixedfeelings about it. Sara Paretsky had a bad time when they made V.I.Warshawski with Kathleen Turner, and moreover she didn't like the movie. SueGrafton has said that she will not ever have a Kinsey Millhone movie, becauseshe used to work in Hollywood. So far nobody has bought Dr. Sutcliffe, andI'm OK with that. If someone offered me a million dollars... well, I'll crossthat bridge when I come to it.
Art Taylor's mystery fiction and mystery-related nonfiction has appearedin Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, TheArmchair Detective and the North Carolina Literary Review. Most recently, hehas interviewed Phyllis Richman, Susan Issacs and Sue Henry for MysteryNet.
MysteryNet.com: The Online Mystery Network.
Copyright © 1999 Newfront Productions, Inc. and Avon Books