Getting books right first time

Along with poor sales and critical reviews, one of the setbacks that authors may encounter is the discovery of mistakes in books that have already been published. I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript, which is probably true. I try to pick up all the errors in my own books before publishing them but when I recently reread three of my earlier ones, in preparation for speaking on the historical crime panel at the Rotorua Noir festival back in January, realised I had failed. I found mistakes in all of them – small mistakes, maybe ones that most readers would never notice, but they annoyed me and I eventually decided I must put them right. At the same time I decided to do some rebranding, changing the cover images on Amazon and adding a new logo.

Overcliff logo HQ

Making these changes was only possible at all because the books had been published independently rather than traditionally. Even so, the process was fairly tedious, expensive and time-consuming. I don’t have the skill to do my own formatting, so I needed to pay an expert to have the previous versions updated. There have been technical difficulties in getting the new covers showing on some of the the Amazon websites.

Has it been worth the time and money involved, apart from relieving my own discomfort about having an imperfect product? Copies of the previous versions are still in circulation, and there’s nothing to be done about that. The experience has shown me the importance of getting it right first time. I admit that I haven’t always followed the basic guidelines:

  • Ask several people to read an advanced draft of your manuscript to check for errors of content; for example flaws in the plot, inconsistent naming of characters, or anything else they may notice.
  • Consider employing a professional copy editor to pick up mistakes in grammar, punctuation or spelling in the final version.
  • Check the proofs thoroughly yourself, even if you are so familiar with the text by that stage that you can’t face reading it yet again and feel impatient to get the book published.

No doubt the new versions of my novels are still imperfect. The cover design is not quite uniform between the three, but this does not really matter. If there are remaining errors in the text, they will have to stay there for the present. Anyway, they are now available for purchase as either paperbacks or ebooks, so if you haven’t already seen them please have a look now. Overdose is set in an old mental asylum, Fatal Feverfew in a healing retreat and Unfaithful Unto Death in rural general practice. They give a historically accurate, if mildly satirical, picture of medical practice and social attitudes in 1980s England. Some readers have found them shocking and others have thoroughly enjoyed them. Here are the links:

Overdose: Smashwords

Fatal Feverfew: Smashwords

Unfaithful Unto Death: Smashwords

Photo 1980 book covers

Medical murder in fact and fiction

Having one of my medically themed crime novels entered for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award has led me to reflect on the topic of murder in healthcare settings.

Deliberate killings by doctors or nurses, though rare, are probably more common than can ever be known. Clinical staff are better placed than most people to get away with murder. They have ready access to drugs, anaesthetic gases and surgical instruments, and deaths due to these agents can easily be passed off as natural or accidental. They are privileged to know intimate details of their patients’ lives. And as members of trusted professions they are not readily suspected.

Among the most notorious murderers of modern times was Dr Harold Shipman, who incidentally trained in the class ahead of me at medical school in Leeds in the 1960s. He was found guilty in a court of law of murdering 15 patients in his single-handed general practice and it is likely that he killed many more over his long career, usually by injecting large doses of diamorphine. The estimated number of his victims was 250, most of them being elderly women who were in good health although he fabricated a diagnosis of serious illness on their records. The nature of the mental aberration that led him to commit all these crimes is unknown, because he continued to deny them up until the time he hanged himself in his prison cell. As a result of Shipman’s case, much stricter controls were imposed on medical practice in the UK.

Other convicted serial murderers from medical settings have been nurses, popularly dubbed “angels of death”, working in hospitals or care homes. Their crimes usually masqueraded as mercy killings, but rather than arising from any genuine sense of compassion for someone whose incurable illness was causing unbearable suffering, they were committed for the perpetrators’ own satisfaction and without the knowledge or consent of the victims or their relatives.

Psychiatric evaluation of medical murderers would usually lead to a label of psychopathy, or personality disorder: the lack of moral sense, the inability to feel empathy, the enjoyment of killing, the grandiose belief of having a right to decide that certain persons are not fit to live. These are the extremes of the arrogance, cynicism and wielding of power that are occupational risks in medicine and related professions. Hallucinations and delusions secondary to psychosis or drug abuse are sometimes implicated.

Most if not all murderers are found to have a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind, and this may be sufficient to explain their crimes. In the context of fiction, however, using mental disorder as the sole reason for killing would usually be seen as a cop-out. Readers of crime novels expect a murder mystery to have a more complex solution,  perhaps involving money, sex, revenge, or concealment of discreditable secrets. These motives may of course account for real-life cases too.

Some would say there is a fine line between deliberate criminal killings and the various other forms of unnatural death that can occur through the actions of medical personnel. Some result from malpractice, others are sanctioned by law in certain jurisdictions. They include euthanasia, abortion, execution, experiments such as those carried out in Nazi Germany, drugs or surgery used inappropriately for commercial gain, and simple carelessness or incompetence.

My novel Unfaithful unto Death is intended as a light read with elements of black comedy, but touches on some of these serious themes.

“Unfaithful unto Death”

My latest novel is a black comedy called Unfaithful unto Death. Here is a short extract:

Chapter 1: A Doctor’s Lot

Somewhere in southern England around 1980

Evening surgery was running late, and Dr Cyril Peabody wanted his dinner. He tried to ignore the rumblings of his empty stomach and concentrate on his work.

His tenth patient, the village postmistress, waddled into his consulting room with maddening slowness. “Evening, doctor.”

“Yes, Mrs Bream, what’s the trouble?”

“Just a touch of indigestion, I shouldn’t wonder,” she replied complacently.

Cyril did not consider this an adequate reason for taking up his time on a fine Friday evening. He said “You’re grossly overweight, you know.” Mrs Bream looked so indignant that he tried to make a joke of the matter by rubbing his hands together and adding “Don’t worry, my dear madam, we’ll soon have you looking as sylph-like as a schoolgirl once again.” She gave him a hostile stare.

“Now. What exactly do you mean by indigestion?” asked Cyril.

Mrs Bream looked at him as if he was a backward child. “Dr Greatorex used to give me some white medicine,” she informed him.

Cyril murmured “Curse these country bumpkins” to himself as he wondered how far to investigate her case. He wrote in Mrs Bream’s file “?Indigestion?” enclosed by prominent quotation marks, and added “Low IQ.” He recalled with nostalgia his time as a hospital doctor, when there would have been a student nurse to undress this old biddy ready for him to carry out a physical examination, and to write out the cards for the relevant tests: chest X-ray, barium meal, cholecystogram, full blood count, urea and electrolytes, liver function, ECG. As it was, doing it all himself did not seem worth the effort.

He reached for the prescription pad, saying in a bracing tone “Jolly good. I’ll give you some more white medicine. Come back and see me if by any chance it doesn’t do the trick. And we need to get rid of a stone or two.”

“Evening, doctor,” said Mrs Bream, and before she was out of the room, Cyril firmly pressed the bell for his last patient: Sebastian de Winter, age forty-four, of Easton Green Manor.

Sebastian de Winter was a giant of a man with a thatch of black hair, a jutting forehead and a worried expression. He glanced suspiciously at the notes on the desk. Cyril asked briskly “Well, Mr de Winter, what’s the trouble?”

“I had another bout of chest pain after lunch today. Scared the hell out of me. My blood pressure’s way out of control – you know that I suppose? Garth Greatorex has been handling the problem but he’s off duty this evening. Well, you know that too of course.” The patient leaned forward and continued earnestly “Frankly, Dr Peabody, I want a second opinion. They tell me all this is due to stress. It’s a month since I had a full physical checkup, and I’d like you to give me another ECG.”

Cyril’s interest was aroused by talk of chest pain, blood pressure and ECGs. He decided to ignore the mention of “stress”, for it would be too bad if this case turned out to involve one or both of his two pet hates, “social problems” and “psychiatry”. Cyril was interested in human bodies; he enjoyed finding out what was wrong with them, and gained satisfaction from putting them right. He was not at all interested in the human mind. He replied “By all means, Mr de Winter, delighted to oblige. As you may know, I had a great interest in cardiology in my most recent hospital post. We’ll give the problem a thorough review.” Fatigue forgotten, he rose to the challenge of demonstrating his medical expertise and, with any luck, outshining his senior partner Garth Greatorex in diagnostic skill.

Sebastian de Winter gave a history of chest pain occurring after meals and accompanied by a sensation of dread. He also complained of headaches and disturbed sleep. Cyril did not ask about his personal circumstances but the patient volunteered an account. The symptoms had started soon after his father’s sudden death from a heart attack. Sebastian had inherited the Easton Green estate with two hundred acres of farmland, and a vineyard just starting production. The burden of managing these assets was a heavy one, and his wife did not give much support. He was drinking up to half a bottle of Scotch every night in an attempt to relax and get a few hours’ sleep. He worried about his high blood pressure; Dr Greatorex’s various prescriptions had either failed to bring it down, or caused unacceptable side effects.

Physical examination revealed no abnormality except a raised blood pressure reading of 175/95. Cyril fetched the portable ECG from the clinical room. He took pride in this machine, which had been out of order when he arrived at the practice. He had got it working properly and used it on many of his patients, though none of the other doctors showed any interest in the tracings he obtained.

Sebastian de Winter’s ECG showed mild left ventricular hypertrophy, but Cyril felt able to give an honest reassurance that it was “essentially within normal limits”. The patient replied “Thank God.” Cyril wondered what to do about the raised blood pressure. The man had already been tried on many of the standard drugs: frusemide, propranolol, bethanidine, methyldopa. In the drawer of Cyril’s desk there were some free samples of a new drug called Amaz. It was claimed to reduce blood pressure by some novel mechanism that Cyril could not remember. Recalling the excellent lunch at the Angel’s Arms which Millford Pharmaceuticals had given to celebrate the launch of this new product a week or so before, Cyril announced “I’m not too happy about the blood pressure, but I’ve got some splendid new tablets here which should bring it under control. Come back next week and we’ll see how they’re suiting you.”

“The stuff Greatorex gave me made me feel sick as a dog all day,” said Sebastian de Winter mournfully. “I suppose I’ve got to expect the same with these.”

“Nausea is a common side effect from medication of any kind,” Cyril told him. He added an opinion of his own “Mainly psychological in origin – don’t think about it and you won’t get it, in other words.”

The patient made no move to leave. He asked “Couldn’t you give me something to help me sleep?”

“Never prescribe sleeping pills. Deplorable things,” said Cyril, who never suffered from insomnia himself. He had had enough of the consultation, and was determined not to be drawn into anything that smacked of psychiatry or social problems. Defeated, Sebastian de Winter put the bottle of Amaz into his pocket and shambled out of the consulting room.

Eight o’clock. Cyril put his stethoscope into his medical bag, snapped it shut, and was striding out of the Health Centre when Linda, the young receptionist with the fluffy blonde hair and curvy figure, waylaid him. “Dr Peabody! There’s two late visits come in!”

He cursed his bad luck under his breath. “Not your day, is it?” remarked Linda brightly.

“I sometimes think a doctor’s lot is not a happy one, Linda. Are these visits really that urgent?”

“Well, I should think the first one is. Poor Mr Harland, he only lives up the lane there, he’s got lung cancer and he’s very bad. His wife’s a nurse at Harphamstead Hospital – she wouldn’t ask for a visit over nothing, I’m sure.”

“Suppose not,” said Cyril. “And what’s the other?”

“Old Miss Gray from Cottage 2 by the duck pond. Says she wants to see one of the male doctors urgently. She’s a little bit eccentric, you know,” said Linda. “Actually, between you and me, she’s plain batty. Don’t tell anyone, but she came round here one day and told the whole waiting room Dr Greatorex was a brazen libertine – whatever that may mean. He was awfully cross.”

Cyril smirked with relish over the anecdote. He asked “And what’s wrong with this Miss Gray?”

“She wouldn’t say. She wants to speak to you in confidence.”

“And where is this duck pond?”

“In the dip past Graves Farm. At least it’s on your way home.”

Cyril did not appreciate the tranquil summer evening scene as he drove away. He was beginning to suspect that his recent career change had been a big mistake. His only previous experience of family medicine had been as a single-handed locum in a quiet West Country practice during his summer holiday. He had rather enjoyed that, and considered he had achieved several significant diagnostic triumphs. But working as a dogsbody at Market Beeching Health Centre, with the senior partner breathing down his neck, was what his mother would call quite a different kettle of fish.


Unfaithful unto Death is available for Kindle or in print from or your local Amazon site, and as an ebook from Smashwords and other online retailers. Please share this with any of your contacts who might enjoy it.

UUD Smashwords cover

The portrayal of illness in fiction

I spent most of my working life as a doctor, so it is not surprising that medical topics often find their way into my fiction writing. Looking back at my completed novels I recognise the themes which have arisen, sometimes more than once: conflicts between mainstream and alternative medicine, overlap between “organic disease” and “functional symptoms”, how serious illness can bring about changes in mood, attitudes and relationships for better or worse, the scope for weakness and corruption in the healthcare professions.

Books, films and television dramas with a medical theme have a widespread appeal. In addition to their entertainment value, when well researched and sensitively presented they serve an educational function, and help to reduce the fear and stigma associated with certain diagnoses whether physical or mental.

There is a risk that fiction with a medical content will distress some readers, especially those who suffer from the conditions in question themselves. Information which was accurate at the time the book was written may have become out of date later on. The use of labels and stereotypes, black humour, or gratuitous sordid detail which promotes morbid fascination with sickness and disability, may cause offence. If the characters are based on real people, or even if they are not, medical authors may be accused of breaching patients’ confidentiality, or of libelling their colleagues.

I don’t know how far I have managed to avoid these pitfalls in my own novels. Most of the illnesses mentioned are ones which I felt entitled to write about because I have experienced them through family, friends or patients, or in myself.