Isolation Ward

by Joshua Spanogle

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 2006
Category: medical thriller; series (#1)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Dr. Nathaniel McCormick, an epidemiologist from the CDC, is summoned to Baltimore to investigate an outbreak of an unidentified, deadly virus in young women from group homes for the mentally impaired. McCormick has a knack for testing limits and annoying those in power as he doggedly pursues his investigation. The trail leads him to California and his own tainted history. Ex-girlfriends, sexual predators, respected scientists, cover-ups, murder, and lies all keep the story rolling to its well-paced conclusion.


Isolation Ward is a first novel written by then-Stanford medical student Joshua Spanogle, and it’s a superb medical thriller with a very contemporary feel. Spanogle writes in the first person “I” voice, a technique he employs effectively to bring life to his protagonist Dr. Nathaniel McCormick. McCormick is a rebel with a cause—and a checkered past—who has depth of character and plenty of self-awareness of his personal shortcomings. He balances arrogance with self-doubt, and you can’t help but like him. Following classic thriller format, the plot offers plenty of twists. Of course our hero encounters resistance to the truth at every turn, and his journey is complicated by messy romantic entanglements.

Spanogle’s writing style is a cut above many thrillers, with nice turns of phrase and lively analogies. McCormick’s voice has a touch of noir-detective tone. As you would expect from a medical professional, Spanogle accurately portrays hospital scenes and uses science/medicine to good effect. Technical themes that appear in the story include xenotransplantation, sexually-transmitted diseases, emerging viruses, medical trials, informed consent, and vaccine development.

This is an EXCELLENT medical thriller, like a fresh and original version of the classics written by the likes of Robin Cook and Michael Palmer.

PARENT ALERT: Isolation Ward has a fair amount of PG-13 language and thematic content.

Settings of interest: Baltimore, Maryland, and the San Francisco Bay Area (with a mock Stanford Medical School)

Joshua Spanogle’s Nathaniel McCormick series:
Isolation Ward (2006); Flawless (2007)

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