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'Abra Cadaver' by James Tucker

Sunday, March 07, 1999

By Karen Carlin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Abra Cadaver

By James Tucker

Signet Paperback


I’m a sucker for stories set in Pittsburgh. Novel or movie, if the plot uses the ’Burgh as a backdrop, I’m there (or should I say here?). I even admit to sitting through Bruce Willis’ flop “Striking Distance” more than once.

So I was eager to read “Abra Cadaver,” the cleverly titled book by James Tucker, a pediatrician from Fox Chapel.

The medical thriller plays out here, from the Downtown to the Strip District to Oakland. Some locations have been fictionalized, such as the Pittsburgh University Medical Center hospital and school, but other elements of the town maintain their true names, such as KDKA and the Post-Gazette.

Most of the action takes place at the university hospital and involves one of the surgical residents, Jack Merlin. Also an amateur magician, the young doctor is drawn into a different type of disappearing act — involving bodies.

In the gross anatomy labs, Merlin discovers the body of his roommate, Kevin, who vanished months earlier. It seems like the perfect crime: Switch a victim’s body with a cadaver at the school where it will be dissected beyond recognition by medical students.

The case winds up on the desk of the new kid in the district attorney’s office, Tory Welch. When she starts receiving threats, Tory wonders if Kevin’s disappearance is an isolated event or if the body switching is a pattern and part of a bigger, more sinister, picture.

With the help of the handsome young doctor, she’ll try to uncover the answer before she ends up in the morgue herself.

“Abra Cadaver” is a good first try for author Tucker’s new sideline as novelist. His knowledge of medicine and grasp of the hospital’s office politics add to the story.

However, the novel has its flaws. The premise is promising, but some aspects of the plot play out in a disjointed fashion as the story weaves back and forth in time and between different characters.

And the characters, particularly the secondary ones, tend to be one-dimensional. There are Mark Peters, the pompous, ambitious assistant district attorney; Martin Wheeler, the pompous, ambitious senior resident at the hospital; and Jonathan Olson, the pompous chairman of anatomy at the medical school and head of pathology at the hospital.

Even Merlin nearly turns into a caricature near the end of the book.

One of the few characters who seems to have been fleshed out is Erno, a dim-witted but burly lackey of the local crime boss.

This lack of character development makes the discovery of the culprit behind the body switches a bit anticlimactic.

There are a few characters who shine, however. Julian Plesser, the county medical examiner, may not be Cyril Wecht, but he has enough personality to deserve a larger role in the story.

Here’s hoping he will in Tucker’s next book.

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