by Robin Cook

(extraordinary; top 10% of SciThri)

Year published: 1977
Category: medical thriller; classic thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY {from the jacket flap}:

They called it “minor surgery,” but Nancy Greenly, Sean Berman, and a dozen others—all admitted to Boston Memorial Hospital for routine procedures—were victims of the same inexplicable, hideous tragedy on the operating table. They never woke up. . .


Coma is gripping and chilling from the get-go. There’s a reason why this novel is still in print 30 years after initial publication: you really can’t put it down. The setting is a university teaching hospital (Harvard, where Dr. Cook trained) during a dreary Boston winter. A strength of this book is the accurate portrayal of hospital life for medical students and residents (at least in the 1970’s; things aren’t quite so grim today.) Medical details are spot-on but not overdone.

The protagonist is a 3rd year medical student named Susan Wheeler. The fact that she’s female is a major focus of the plot. Normally I would find this annoying, but given that Cook wrote this book in the mid-1970’s when women in medicine were rare, I accept the novelty factor as reflecting reality at the time. Fortunately, Susan is a compelling character who doesn’t suffer from what I call the “strong woman written by a man” phenomenon that is common in thrillers written by male authors.

Smart, strong-willed and compassionate, Susan is moved by the tragic fate of one of her comatose patients. When she learns that there have been other, similar cases, she resolves to find the cause. She meets resistance from the surgical resident who is supervising her, and from surgeons and faculty as well, who brush off the incidents as part of a normal day’s work.

Coma contains some majorly creepy scenes. With the usual allowances made for action and revelations, the plot remains firmly in the realm of believable. A plot “twist” late in the book is no big surprise, but it is still satisfying and disturbing. Fabulously ambiguous ending.

In Coma, Cook created a masterpiece of the genre whose central theme is every bit as topical today as it was in 1977. A must-read.

Don’t read this book if: you’re scheduled for a surgical procedure anytime soon

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