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Novel Sheds Light
On More than One Mystery

by Guy Friddell
The Virginian-Pilot Hampton Roads

October 30, 2000

Joseph T. McFadden, professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School, has written a powerful, first-rate mystery novel, Hermes' Viper, set in a huge 3,000 bed charity hospital.

After the first chapter, the 423-page novel had me by the throat. I read through the night and into the next day.

Idealistic Dr. Stuart Holton is a neurosurgeon in a hospital on Chicago's South Side. He chose that exceedingly active practice out of a love of humanity and a drive to save lives.

In the reaches of the large hospital wards, terminal patients beyond treatment are routinely found dead, but the dedicated Dr. Holton realizes that the mortality rate among his patients is becoming abnormally high. Then, patients who are not terminal die under troubling circumstances.

The guilty party is a staff member, close to him, who is gifted in assuming disguises, ranging from a pink lady volunteer to a minor lab technician.

She has sought to get in touch with her own identity since fire scarred and maimed her at age 5. Looking for her true self, she turns to ending the suffering of terminal patients.

Armed with syringes and poisons, she flits late at night along dimly lit halls, an angel of death.

Obsessed by erotomania, a maniacal fixation on one individual, she stalks Holton and determines to remove all who stand between him and her, whether hospital employees or his family.

He can't identify her nor, for that mater, could this reader, even though she records her deadly rounds in a journal.

When someone other than my suspect proved to be guilty, I checked and found that the author had played fair in delineating the stalker from the start. I'd been as obtuse as anybody in the book in picking up the clues. They were right there in front of us.

Usually, I'm not overwhelmed with people discussing their operations, but one of this books's strengths is its portrayal of the hospital environment, the crises met with team spirit, and the surgeon at work.

In depicting the deft motions of the surgeon and his aides in an operation, McFadden comes down close, paring them down to their bare, vivid essentials. Each operation becomes an absorbing vignette, and, reading it, one pulls for the patient.

The characters are as numerous as those in one of Charles Dickens' novels. McFadden succeeds in making each one believable. The book has two rousing pursuits. When Holton discovers the stalker is on the prowl for his family, he races to find and rescue them.

Then, Holton's chase turns to capturing and unmasking the stalker.

McFadden draws from 42 years as a neurosurgeon, most of them in Norfolk. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Mississippi, he trained at the University of Virginal Medical School. In 1951, he began practice in Norfolk. He and his partner, Dr. James Thomson, were for several years the only neurosurgeons serving Tidewater, Virgina along with referrals from Easter North Carolina. McFadden founded and chaired the department of neurosurgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

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