Up until about 15 years ago, my nonorthopaedic reading consisted of fiction, particularly Stephen King, John Grisham, and Patricia Cromwell books. I then switched entirely to non-fiction topics—biographies, politics, business, and nutrition/fitness. But when the opportunity to review “Scalpel’s Cut,” written by Richard A. Brown, MD, presented itself, I thought, “Why not? I’ll do it.” I really enjoyed reading this thriller and couldn’t put it down, despite its incredulous plot and storyline.
“Scalpel’s Cut” relates the foibles of its superhero, orthopaedic hand surgeon Eric “VJ” (Viking Jew) Brio, MD, who nearly single-handedly orchestrates the successful take-down of a corrupt hospital administration. The “Cooperative” is strong-arming doctors to cooperate in a falsified billing racket overseen by a cantankerous witch named Petra Lewis at Boston’s “famous” hospital MRMC. It seems that, once hooked, the doctors cannot back out.
The book starts off by relating the sad tale of VJ’s colleague, Nick Mahaffey, MD, whose fingers were chopped off by an ogre named Cyrus, the Cooperative’s sometime enforcer, in retaliation for trying to buck the corrupt system. The task of reattachment falls to our superhero, who flawlessly replants the fingers during a nightlong operation. Of course, the outcome is perfect—so perfect that, very soon after the surgery (digital circulation be damned), VJ is able to fly Dr. Mahaffey circuitously around Europe and hide him in Sweden to avert further threats to his life or limbs. VJ seems to have endless funds and the enviable ability to cancel scheduled surgery and office hours, without penalty, to traipse around the world, calling on favors from friends all over the globe in his self-appointed quest.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this book, however, is its setting. A great portion of it takes place on a cold night in a darkened, gross-anatomy lab where spunky medical student Tess (who becomes the heroine) is scheduled to meet one of her anatomy professors for a tutoring session. However, the professor, Bianca, who, of course, is a friend of VJ’s, asks him to take her place.
As VJ and Tess sit in the lab, surrounded by dozens of cadavers, VJ unleashes a veritable stream of consciousness about his life experiences and describes in detail how the Cooperative is attempting to bump him off for defying the system. At this point, we also are introduced to Leila, VJ’s newfound love, a beautiful nurse who just happened to be the circulating nurse during Dr. Mahaffey’s surgery. The narrative is often long-winded, and the style and prose seem unnecessarily verbose and somewhat undisciplined. This may just be a reflection of Dr. Brown’s newbie author status (not necessarily a criticism, just an observation). But Dr. Brown’s imagination goes wild as he unveils the superhero’s incredibly complicated and spectacular efforts to thwart the Cooperative, including faking his own death with, of course, the help of his many faithful friends.
After revealing much about VJ and Tess, the story takes us to Sierra Lakes, Calif., where VJ has done some locum work. The trip, however, takes place after VJ fakes his death. He is with Leila and suspects the Cooperative will follow him and kill him. Sure enough, the feckless Luciano brothers, two idiotic thugs from Boston, show up and mistakenly bomb VJ’s neighbor’s house. But they’re the ones who meet their demise when VJ lures them, on a snowmobile, into the woods, shoots and kills them, and throws their bodies into the local hospital’s incinerator (the door to which has been conveniently and negligently left unlocked) without anyone noticing. Of course, a snowstorm conveniently covers up his tracks. Justifiable homicide in preemptory self-defense or what?
Then it’s back to Boston, where VJ, Leila, and Tess hatch a plan to expose and bring down the Cooperative. Super-heroine Tess (with behind-the-scenes help from her friend, fellow medical student Axel, who just happens to be a computer-hacking whiz) is inserted as a mole into Ms. Lewis’ (the Cooperative’s boss) office. Did I mention that during the long anatomy lab session we learn that Tess is VJ’s biologic daughter, although he’s not sure who the mother is? And did I mention that Cyrus is sweet on her?
The trio sets about documenting billing fraud, with Leila now working in the intensive care unit, secretly forwarding orders and other information to Axel; VJ directing the operation; and Tess getting access to Ms. Lewis’ office, where she can snoop around. The plan nearly collapses when Ms. Lewis discovers that Tess had broken into her inner sanctum and used her computer. Ms. Lewis tries to eliminate Tess on a construction site but meets her own demise as Cyrus mysteriously appears, shoots Ms. Lewis, and heaves her body over the side of the building, only to be impaled on the exposed rebar she so hated. The Cooperative is finished.
VJ is an incredible guy, and Tess feels blessed that he is her father, as she lost her adoptive parents in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. She now has a family—VJ and his fiancé, Leila. As the sun comes up after the demise of Ms. Lewis, Tess muses: “VJ talked about his girlfriend in such a respectful, sweet manner. The man had many intriguing layers. He seems completely in love with this woman he’d only recently met and cared deeply and sincerely for his patients but seemed at odds with himself, as well as with the practice of medicine and all its idiosyncrasies. He had the resourcefulness and the wherewithal to plan and eliminate two men who posed a mortal threat. Tess hated to admit it to herself, but she admired VJ for that.” See what I mean about the prose?
Well, that about sums it up. This book’s plot, premise, and storyline are beyond incredible. Sure, it’s fiction, but the idea that an orthopaedic surgeon could engineer such a complicated operation is totally preposterous. But maybe that’s what makes it interesting. Perhaps the rest of us mere mortal orthopods can live, at least for a short time, a little vicariously through VJ’s antics. The book is a quick read and held my attention. The literary flaws are minor and excusable in my opinion, and Dr. Brown is to be congratulated on this project.
Who was Tess’ mother? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
John P. Lubicky, MD, FAAOS, FAAP, FAOA, professor of orthopaedic surgery and pediatrics at West Virginia University School of Medicine, is a member of the AAOS Now Editorial Board.