Synopsis for Unexpected Deaths
When Jon was appointed six months ago as chief of urology in a veteran’s hospital, not all his colleagues welcomed him warmly. He was too young and enthusiastic for the two older physicians who didn’t want their cushy sinecures disturbed. The mystery in Unexpected Deaths is why patients start dying unexpectedly of cardiac arrest, and especially why only Jon’s patients die—a serious topic treated with wit and black humor.
No definite cause of death can be determined in the first two, so perhaps Jon is just not as good as he thinks. But, by the third one, he wonders if the deaths are murders. He’s sure neither of the two residents, with whom he works, is the culprit. But Algy, one of the two older physicians, who resents working under him, is suspect. This ex-army doc is thin, wiry and fanatical about fitness and diet. Just as he chafes against Jon’s leadership, he abhors the absence of a separate officers’ mess and the lack of respect from lower ranking staff. Sarah is a frustrated, overweight nurse who aspires to be a nurse practitioner but can’t seem to do the work required to fulfill her dream. She has definite views on not prolonging the end of life, so she too is suspect. Finally Lee, a janitor in the urology inpatient unit, is a sullen, unlikable man whose secret hobby is dissecting small animals, usually road-kill and, once, the neighbor’s pet rabbit. The reader is given third person viewpoints for each of these characters as well as for the protagonist, Jon.
The hospital administration strongly censors Jon for the three deaths, citing poor judgment and post-operative care, and his clinical privileges are curtailed. Fortunately, he is befriended by another VA physician, a cardiologist, who agrees that the deaths are probably not random events but murders with IV epinephrine as the agent. This would not only produce a cardiac arrest, but is also virtually undetectable. To restore their reputations Jon and the residents try to solve this mystery themselves rather than report their suspicions to the administration who would likely hush the problem up, move staff around and thus and frighten off the perpetrator.
As Jon and the residents carry out their investigations, we follow the three suspects in and outside the hospital. Sarah and Algy start an affair, which restores his waning sexuality, but then she dumps him for an evangelical minister who preaches the imminence of the Armageddon. Lee murders his mother and buries her in the basement but then digs her up and throws the body in a ditch by a freeway, expecting it to be found, so proving her death and then collecting his inheritance.
The climax of the story comes when Jon goes to the urology unit, dressed in an Easter Bunny suit used by a volunteer to entertain staff children. In this, he can spy on the three suspects after he finds that someone has taken some epinephrine vials and is sure the perpetrator is about to strike again. Jon’s top suspect, Algy, turns out to be the murderer and, suspended from duties pending an investigation, he departs on a road-trip, is pulled over for speeding, has a mental break and shoots the cop. The next morning he is found dead in a motel room, presumably from suicide. Sarah gets engaged to the minister, in spite of the apparent nearness of the end time. Lee is left waiting for his mother’s body to be found and wonders if he should take it from its hiding place and throw it on the freeway. Finally, Jon wonders what he did to make Algy hate him enough to go to such extremes to discredit him, and questions whether his skin is thick enough for an academic career.