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.

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Reviews from Heck

I got a couple of bad reviews for Too Much blood this week. I won’t say I’m not upset, because I am. Nobody likes being told that her magnum opus is just so much dreck. I know, I know, everybody doesn’t like the same things, and I can’t please everybody, but I can’t help feeling bad. I know perfectly well that everybody doesn’t hate Too Much Blood, because I’ve got 4 and 5 star reviews too, and I’m glad they got to me first.

I’m not going to post either of these reviews in their entirety, but I feel that certain aspects deserve comment.

First item: HIPAA.

“I found it odd that Toni is able to get information that a typical pathologist probably wouldn’t be able to get her hands (on).”

“Toni looks up confidential medical information on several people who are definitely not in her care (she’s a pathologist for crying out loud, she doesn’t take care of live patients) in
order to “solve the case.” Again, HIPAA laws anyone? That is completely inappropriate and really puts doctors in a bad light, because it suggests that we think this is okay. It’s NOT. People get fired for doing things like that all the time.”

These reviewers are absolutely right; HIPAA is a big deal, and people do get fired for violating it. However, there is such a thing as need to know. Doctors have much more leeway than other medical personnel because they have a need to know about patients, whether they’re taking care of those patients or just providing consultation. Pathologists are consultants.

Pathologists do deal with live people, 99% of the time. They aren’t the primary caregivers, but what they do impinges directly on their care. Every specimen they get should come with adequate medical history, supporting lab data, radiological reports, and any particular concerns the submitting doc might have. But they don’t.  Specimens come to us with no history, or history that isn’t pertinent to that particular specimen. So we have to be able to look that up, or we can’t do our job properly and might not be able to provide the specific information the primary doc needs to know. We might fail to fail to handle the specimen properly for their needs if we don’t know what their needs are, and surgeons aren’t always available by phone. Having access to the electronic medical record is essential for pathologists. When I’m signing out cases, about 25% of my time is taken up by looking things up in the medical record because I don’t have enough information.

Next item: phones.
“In the very first chapter of this book, Toni’s home phone rings in the middle of the night and her husband picks it up. First, what about a pager? A pager on vibrate? A cell
phone? How has this never occurred to her through medical school, residency,
and now her job? If I were her husband, I would have lost it much sooner.”

“How can a medical professional not know about pagers or putting one’s phone on vibrate mode? How can a spouse of a doctor not be used to having the phone ring in the middle of the night occasionally? It would seem to me to be par for the course in marrying a
pathologist who needs to be on-call regularly.”

Pagers make noise. Cell phones on vibrate make noise. A cell phone that vibrates loud enough to wake me up would also wake up my husband, even if it’s under my pillow. Even if it didn’t, my getting out of bed to go out of the room to talk on it would. I know this, I used to have a husband. Even if it didn’t, I would still have trouble getting back to sleep, and for nothing because I wouldn’t be going to do an autopsy in the middle of the night. This seems blown out of proportion as something to condemn an entire novel for.

Third item: Toni’s arrogant and unlikeable.

“Toni Day is extremely nosy and a really unlikeable character. If a character is going to carry a whole set of books named after her, she’d better be someone people want to read about. I
was hoping she would grow and develop over the book, but she was the main reason I couldn’t finish it. She is pushy, arrogant and says the most inappropriate things like she is on the autistic spectrum. I personally would want to divorce her too.”

“Toni uses the excuse that since she did the autopsy on the dead man that this gives her the right to ask all sorts of invasive questions to people she barely knows. In what universe is this okay?”

That hurts. I can’t help taking that one personally, even though I shouldn’t. Toni’s a fictional character. I’m really quite mild-mannered, and not nearly as arrogant as some doctors are. It puts me in mind of a CAP inspection I once did, where the pathology department had seventeen Phase Two deficiencies, which they had 30 days to fix or the entire lab would lose accreditation. At the summation conference, chaos ensued. The techs were bewildered; the pathologists livid. Nothing had changed in ten years, they protested, and they’d been through five other inspections in that time, and nobody else gave them any Phase Two deficiencies. I can’t help it, I told them, I have to call it as I see it, and you are welcome to appeal it. I told them how to do that. I was the epitome of reasonableness. I never raised my voice.

To my utter astonishment, I got slammed for being arrogant and condescending. The regional inspector called me to discuss it. I told him exactly what happened. He allowed as how I did exactly right, and that lab was just going to have to suck it up and fix those deficiencies.

But it didn’t make me feel any better. I still dread doing CAP inspections. Maybe so close to retirement I won’t have to do any more.

But I digress.

Last item: excessive and oddly placed swearing. One reviewer had an issue with swearing in both books.

Guilty as charged. I swear a lot. Nobody cares. Most people laugh. I write the way I talk. In the future, I shall warn reviewers that if they don’t like strong language, perhaps they shouldn’t review the book.

So how did I handle these two reviews? What did I do to make myself feel better? I looked up Lisa Scottoline, who is a best-selling author whose novels feature kick-ass lady lawyers whose language is as strong as mine. She has many many 4 and 5 star reviews, but she also has some 1 and 2 star reviews, and some of them put a lot of emphasis on all the swearing these lady lawyers do.

If Lisa Scottoline gets a few bad reviews, who am I to complain about a couple? It’s life, for a writer, to take the bad with the good and deal.

In other words, suck it up, princess.