Novel idea: A medical thriller for veterinarians
Clare T. Walker, DVM, was working as a veterinarian in a small animal hospital when she heard a rumor that the nearby emergency clinic was haunted—and that’s when her mental gears started turning.
Dr. Walker had grown up wanting to be a veterinarian, but she was also a voracious reader of fantasy, mystery and adventure books. And though she majored in animal science in college, she admits entertaining thoughts of ditching the clinical path in favor of an English degree.
“My practical side kicked in and I decided to continue on my veterinary course,” she says. “It seemed more stable at the time.”
But when Dr. Walker heard about the supposedly haunted clinic, she let her “impractical” side have more say and the rumor served as the inspiration for her first novel, The Keys of Death (which doubled as her thesis project while working toward a master’s degree in written communication).
Dr. Walker describes The Keys of Death as a veterinary medical thriller, and though she was inspired by the idea of a haunted clinic, that’s not what this book is about.
“A haunted veterinary hospital would be interesting, but I wanted to take it a step further,” says Dr. Walker. “I asked myself what a veterinarian’s worst nightmare would be and went from there. The veterinarian in my novel ends up getting involved in a whistle-blowing scheme against a big biotech company.”
The book may sound like a far cry from a James Herriot memoir, but Dr. Walker tells a story from early in her veterinary career to illustrate one of the similarities.
“During my veterinary training, I was never on call during lambing season,” she says. “But my first year out of vet school, I was working at a suburban animal hospital in an area with a lot of hobby sheep and goat farmers. When a client called one day and said her ewe was having a difficult time giving birth, I volunteered my services and ended up delivering twin lambs using information I’d learned from James Herriot and his step-by-step accounts of how to deliver lambs. The veterinary technician who’d accompanied me was shocked to learn it was my first lamb delivery.”
Dr. Walker says The Keys of Death is a bit like that.
“I get pretty clinical and descriptive because of the nature of the genre. Readers of medical thrillers tend to be pretty interested in learning the nuts and bolts and behind-the-scenes details of what they’re reading about. A veterinarian who reads this will notice some shortcuts and shorthand, of course, but readers outside the veterinary field can learn, for example, how to intubate a dog from my book,” she says.
While Dr. Walker regularly calls upon her own experiences and training in her writing, she also does a lot of research.
“I had to learn a lot about how to break into a car and hotwire it. If people were to look at my internet searches, they’d think I was planning a heist,” she says.
But don’t let the thriller genre fool you. Dr. Walker’s goals for the book go beyond entertainment.
“I would really like to encourage veterinarians with this book and see them built up in our culture. I’ve noticed that we’ve been getting some bad press lately—between upselling accusations and controversial reality TV show veterinarians,” she says. “The veterinarian protagonist in my book is a hero and is everything that is great about veterinarians. But, she does have flaws and wounds that need to be addressed, and what she goes through in the novel deals with these things. There’s a lot of heart to this story.”
Dr. Walker hasn’t ruled out authoring a novel about a haunted veterinary hospital someday and continues to write while working as a relief veterinarian at various clinics two or three days a week. But she knows what it’s like to have to write on her lunch break in the midst of a full-time job. Her advice to other veterinary professionals hoping to dip their toes in the literary field? Read good books—even when it seems like you don’t have time.