Deaths and the doctor

LOGROLLING ALERT: Lee Goldberg and I have never met. I first encountered his work through reviewing his Star Trek parody novel “Beyond the Beyond” in 1987 and interviewed him and his writing partner Bill Rabkin for a newspaper story about the “Martial Law” TV show. In response to my previous review of “The Silent Partner,” Lee sent me a signed copy of “Waking Nightmare,” so consider me either a book critic of rare perception and taste, or a hack writer whose opinion can be bought for the price of a paperback.

Lee Goldberg’s “Diagnosis Murder” series are the Hershey bars of the mystery genre. They’re fast-paced, traditional mysteries that are meant solely to entertain and keep alive the memory of the TV series starring Dick Van Dyke as the crime-solving Dr. Mark Sloan.

Suicides haunt the fourth novel in the series. Dr. Sloan has as patients an actress who has beaten cancer several times but who refuses to quit smoking, and a woman who he saw jumping from a fifth-floor window but survived. Both resist Mark’s efforts to help them, and he wants to know why.

In addition, his son is investigating the death of a publisher of an extreme-sports magazine, who died from a knife in the chest during a parachute jump. But how did it happen, and why?

Goldberg was a producer on the series, so he has a thorough knowledge of the characters: Sloan is still the irascible, driven doctor and solver of murders; his son, Steve, the police detective whose reputation is damaged by his father help in his cases; Jesse, the doctor who admires Mark; and Amanda, the sharp-talking coroner. Like their TV counterparts, they banter, argue and sass each other, sometimes sidetracking serious conversations into something that sounds like, well, a TV show. There’s Steve the detective, caging bear claws from a baker visiting the injured jumper, or a conversation stopping dead because someone says “hinky” (“I watched a lot of seventies cop shows” / “That explains your hair.”). Those who like their mysteries earnest will crab about realism. I find these quirks human. Maybe it’s because I like bear claws.

Since the novelist Goldberg doesn’t have to work under the same limitations as Goldberg the producer, he can add scenes that would never appear on TV, such as the gruesome interfering of a cremation or the sight of a bare-arsed Dick Van Dyke wandering the corridors of Community General in a hospital gown.

“Waking Nightmare” is a tightly plotted mystery that contains several plot twists and series of false solutions in the Agatha Christie tradition. Goldberg effortlessly carries over the flavor of the series to the written word, so if you liked the show, you’d probably like the books.

UPDATE: Read Lee Goldberg’s story behind “The Waking Nightmare” at M.J. Rose’s Backstory blog.