Almost a decade ago, Elaine Viets had a stroke. I didn’t know her personally, but I was a fan of her popular Dead-End Job mystery series. The sixth Dead-End Job book, Murder With Reservations, was just about to come out, and Viets had planned to go out on book tour to promote it. In a heartwarming demonstration of Viets’ status as a beloved member of the mystery community, authors and booksellers all over the country banded together to support her and promote her new book.
The story has a happy ending: Viets recovered, Murder With Reservations was a hit, and she went on to write many more books. Now, she’s finally written about the stroke that almost killed her; her alter ego is not an author but a death investigator. Even people who have read more crime novels than they can count may not know what a DI is, but it’s a real job, Viets told The Big Thrill: they “are professionals who perform independent, scientific investigations of unattended deaths. The DI takes charge of the body at the scene… The body belongs to the DI until it goes to the medical examiner.” Viets took a DI training course in preparation for writing the book.
DI Angela Richman works in an upscale St. Louis suburb where a handful of old-money families rule the roost. While investigating the death in a car accident of the daughter of one of those powerful families, Angela is incapacitated by a terrible headache. Her migraine pills don’t help, so she goes to the hospital, where she’s told by a doctor to keep taking her tablets and come back in a few days for a PET scan. However, just a few hours after returning home, a series of strokes almost kills her—and when she finally wakes up in a hospital bed, 19 days have passed.
Viets is writing from her own experience here; the doctor who misdiagnosed her, like the one in the book, told her she was too young and fit to have a stroke. In Brain Storm, she makes him into a murder victim. (“I enjoyed killing [him],” she told The Big Thrill. “I just wish his death could have been more painful.”) The chief suspect is another brain surgeon at the hospital—the one who saved Angela’s life. Can Angela, whose normally-sharp brain is hardly working as well as it usually does (she is convinced her mother, who died many years ago, is coming by regularly to sit by her bedside), figure out who committed the crime?
Despite the fact that she’s in such poor shape, Angela does have the advantage of being able to snoop around and eavesdrop on nurses and chat with the hospital guard. Offering moral support is her best pal Katie, the county medical examiner, who stops by regularly to bring Angela both food and gossip from the outside.
Viets describes Angela’s illness and recovery in often-harrowing detail; the mystery takes something of a backseat to the protagonist’s fight for life. However, I was won over by her strength and sass, and while Viets has described this series as “dark” (compared to her usual cozies), longtime fans will be happy that the author’s sense of humor is still in evidence. After all, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.