My muse for “Murder Under the Microscope”

The basis for my first book, Murder Under the Microscope, was a female locum tenens who was hired, back in the eighties, to help with weekend call. Everyone on the medical staff thought she was wonderful. My techs couldn’t stand her, and I heard about it on a daily basis. Her method of drawing blood consisted of starting an IV and letting the blood drip into the tube. Her method of collecting a culture for gonorrhea was to smash the tip of the penis into the chocolate agar plate. When my techs tried to explain why she shouldn’t do it that way, she would tell them when they had gone to medical school, then they could tell her what to do and not before.

Eventually she started working during the week too, and that’s when I tried to talk to her about these things, but she attacked me. She gave me an earful about how incompetent she thought the lab was, and why. Nothing I said made any difference. Then she wrote a letter to Administration and the medical staff, all about how bad our lab was compared to labs at all the other hospitals she’d worked in, and how incompetent the pathologist was. When I found my copy on my desk in the morning, I went straight to the administrator, only to find that several of the doctors had beaten me to it. They assured me that the lab was okay, and so was I, but they were unsympathetic when I complained about how she was affecting the morale in my lab.

Nobody killed her. She was let go after three weeks, because that was when the patients she’d seen came back for their follow-up appointments and the other doctors found out about all the mistakes she had made, and what their patients thought of her. I also found out that she’d been as nasty to Radiology as she had to the lab, and that one of the surgeons had received a letter from her too.

When Murder Under the Microscope was published in 2011, that surgeon came charging into Histology where I was grossing surgicals, waving my book and laughing his head off, and said, “I remember that lady!”

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My inspiration for the Toni Day Mystery series

It all started with Murder She Wrote.

All doctors think about retirement, whether it’s making enough money to retire early, or whether they can afford to retire at all, or where they want to live when they retire, and all the fun they’ll have after they do retire.

My husband had a dream of selling the house and living in a motor home and traveling all over the country when I retired, never staying long in one place. I didn’t want that, so I decided to keep working until he got over it. That wasn’t our only point of dissension, and in 2004 we divorced, so I didn’t have to worry about that any more.

In my case, I thought about what I would do to pass the time after retirement, because I’ve known too many doctors who retired and then died. Of boredom? Who knows?

But when Murder She Wrote came on TV, I decided I wanted to be Jessica Fletcher when I grew up. My husband gifted me with a word processor for Christmas, and I sat right down and started writing what is now my first Toni Day mystery, Murder Under the Microscope.

In 1985, when I had less than ten years of pathology practice under my belt at a tiny rural hospital, a locum tenens, or temporary, physician was hired to help with weekend call. The first thing she did was pick a fight with me, verbally abuse my lab techs, and circulate derogatory information about how incompetent the lab and pathologist were.

Nothing happened, of course, and she was gone after three weeks, but in the meantime she did a real number on my self-esteem, and I got no visible support from my medical colleagues. That was when the first seed was planted, and I decided that someday I would kill her off in a book.

In 1982, a sleazy lawyer got our entire medical staff ensnared in a leasing company, which was intended to avoid taxes, and worked quite well until1987 and Black Monday. It all fell apart, the IRS swooped in, and the doctors ended up owing hundreds of thousands in back taxes, interest and penalties. Luckily, I hadn’t gotten involved in the first place, but the whole thing adversely affected the hospital’s bottom line, and I think it was ultimately responsible for us having to sell out to the county hospital in 2001.

I killed him off in Too Much Blood.

In 1995, we acquired a new hospital administrator, who, not to mince words, was a pathological liar and treated employees like shit. I killed him off in Grievous Bodily Harm.

My best friend Rhonda and I were at a party where a friend of ours introduced us to one of her daughters. When she told her daughter that I was a pathologist, the daughter exclaimed, “Eww, you do autopsies? On dead people?”

I explained to her that we are limited to dead people because those live ones complain too much, and Rhonda said that it would be death by autopsy. Ever since, Rhonda has been telling me that I had to write a book called Death by Autopsy, so I did.

In 2013, I was on a Caribbean cruise with a gentleman friend, and we were sitting up on the Lido deck one day when it began to rain, and they had to close the roof. As I watched those massive gears closing the roof with a cacophony of creaks and groans, it occurred to me what a dandy way that would be to murder somebody and have it look like an accident. The result was The Body on the Lido Deck.

Throughout all these stories, Toni’s mother, Fiona, had objected to Toni’s getting involved in matters best left to the police and putting herself in danger. I thought it was about time that Fiona actually had to ask Toni to get involved, and consequently Toni and Hal return to their hometown of Long Beach, California, in A Deadly Homecoming.

One of the editors of Murder Under the Microscope commented that it was too bad that “the awful Robbie” had been sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder, because she was hoping he would show up in future books. “I love a good villain,” was what she said. So I’m resurrecting him in my seventh Toni Day Mystery, with the working title The Twelve Murders of Christmas.

Incidentally, I still haven’t retired.