I’ve always been a sucker for soap opera. Not necessarily the daytime TV kind, although at various times of my life I’ve been a regular viewer of shows such as RYAN’S HOPE and THE EDGE OF NIGHT. I’m talking more about novels that were bestsellers in the Fifties and Sixties by authors like Harold Robbins, Arthur Hailey, Henry Denker, Herbert Kastle, and Wirt Williams. (Other than Robbins and Hailey, there are some forgotten names for you. Maybe Robbins and Hailey, too, more than I’d like to think.) These novels were often about Hollywood, or fancy hotels, or the publishing business (usually bearing little resemblance to the real publishing business), or some other glamorous, high-pressure setting like, say, a big-city hospital.
Which brings us to THE DEATH COMMITTEE. I remembered reading this novel when it came out in 1969 and enjoying it, so I thought I’d give a try again. It’s pure soap opera, centered around the life and loves of three doctors in a Boston hospital, following them from one summer to the next. Along the way there are flashbacks to fill in the histories of the main characters, as well as a framing sequence involving the Death Committee of the title, which meets whenever a patient dies unexpectedly to find out what went wrong and who is to blame.
This book is really dated in one respect. Nearly all the doctors are men, with female characters relegated to playing wife/girlfriend/nurse/patient roles. You can’t blame a book for being a product of its time, but in this case it does seem to limit the dramatic possibilities quite a bit. But the writing is very clear and direct, with hardly a literary flourish to be seen. Everything goes to the service of story and character, which is not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Gordon keeps the pace perking along with plenty of complications, and I can see why I enjoyed it forty years ago. It’s just a good, involving story, well-told.
If you’re a fan of ER or GRAY’S ANATOMY, you’ll probably find a lot that’s familiar in THE DEATH COMMITTEE, though the novel is, of course, a lot more old-fashioned than those shows and lacking in the bizarre quirks that show up so often on GRAY’S. Some modern readers might find it a little too slow, but if you’re looking for a nice hefty chunk of former bestsellerdom, give THE DEATH COMMITTEE a try.