J.L. GREGER – Can Mysteries Educate as Well as Entertain?

J.L. Greger is a scientist turned novelist. She includes science and international travel in her award-winning mysteries and thrillers: The Flu Is Coming, Games for Couples, Dirty Holy Water, Fair Compromises, and seven others.

A woman scientist and her FBI colleagues rush to find who poisoned the food at a political rally with botulism toxin in order to kill their target—a woman candidate for the U.S. Senate.

A number of physicians and biologists have become novelists, including Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Homes series), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park), Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). Agatha Christie worked in a pharmacy during World War II. Several have commented that they wrote novels because they wanted to arouse interest in the medical sciences and public health among their readers, i.e., Robin Cook (Coma) and the inventor of birth control pills Carl Djerassi (Cantor’s Dilemma).

Do novelists impact readers’ interest in science? Maybe. A number of undergraduate women and minorities majoring in biology at one university claimed Abby Sciuto, the forensic scientist for many years on the popular T.V. show NCIS, was a role model because she was a caring person even though she was a scientist.

Their comments were particularly interesting because the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have invested millions of dollars trying to recruit women and minorities into scientific fields but have had limited success. It seems many students think of scientists as being weird, white males. One can’t wonder if this stereotype was enhanced by fictional villains, such as Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Strangelove, and Dr. Moreau.

As scientist and dean, I can tell you that recruiting and retaining women and minorities to faculty positions is not easy. Furthermore, it’s not fun being the only woman on a government panel.

What I decided to do? I decided to write mysteries and thrillers with a woman scientist Sara Almquist as my protagonist. Sara is a feisty woman who tired of the constant bickering among university faculty members and became a consultant on epidemiology for the FBI and other agencies, including the USAID, an arm of the State Department concerned with agriculture and public health issues internationally. She has a love interest but is too independent to marry him. He calls her “a nosy do-gooder,” and she reluctantly agrees with his assessment of her.

In each of the mysteries and thrillers in my Science Traveler Series, Sara investigates a different scientific issue as she helps law enforcement agencies solve murders. They include weight loss schemes, industrial sabotage in the biotechnology industry, and bubonic plague in livestock.

In my newest mystery FAIR COMPROMISES, Sara Almquist and her FBI colleagues rush to find who endangered the lives of a hundred attendees at a political rally by poisoning the food with botulism toxin. The poisoners’ target was a woman candidate for the U.S. Senate; the rest were just collateral damage. As these agents track clues from a veterans’ hall in Clovis to health spas of Santa Fe, they must make a multitude of personal and professional (perhaps too many) compromises.

What is known about botulinum toxins? One of the hottest anti-aging products offered at health spas is BOTOX or related botulinum products. I suspect many clients get rid of their wrinkles or make their lips look luscious, and pouty know little about the injections they are getting.

Botulinum products, such as BOTOX, are produced by the same bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) that grows in improperly canned vegetables and meat. Perhaps a few of you remember your mother using a pressure cooker when she canned vegetables to prevent the lethal effects of botulinum toxin.

Your mother was right. Scientists have found botulism toxin is the most toxic natural compound ever discovered. It literally paralyzes muscles. Hence, the victims of botulism poisoning die of paralysis of the muscles needed for respiration. The death rate used to be 90%. Now with an antidote, the death rate is 5-10%.

During World War II, botulism toxin was considered as a potential weapon of war. In the 1980 and 1990s, scientists discovered tiny amounts of it could be used and injected into muscles that spasmed in various neurological conditions. They also figured out that tiny injections of botulinum toxin would prevent the muscle contractions that caused crow’s feet around the eyes and worry lines.

How is botulinum toxin used in FAIR COMPROMISES? In this mystery, state public health officials quickly determine that botulism poisoning has caused double and blurred visions and headaches in dozens of people who attended a political rally the day before. The health officials requested the help of the FBI when they realized the symptoms of the senate candidate at the rally were much worse than those of others, and she was progressing rapidly to respiratory paralysis. They think she may have been targeted.

Thus FAIR COMPROMISES is a medical mystery in which the source of the toxin must be identified. At first, improperly home canned food served at the rally appears to be the source of the toxin. The mystery turns from being the analysis of a severe food safety breach to the investigation of a diabolical murder attempt using “cosmetic” botulism toxin when Sara, with the help of a talented lab crew, discovers a more sinister source of the toxin at a health and beauty spa in Santa Fe.

How are these bits of science in FAIR COMPROMISES useful?

  • It’s a reminder to home canners to follow recipe instructions carefully.
  • It helps consumers appreciate the scientific basis of public health regulations in regard to food processing and cosmetics.
  • It reminds women to get the facts before they select to “beat the aging process” with just an easy injection or cream.
  • Maybe it will generate interest in the science in general.

J.L. can be contacted at: https://www.jlgreger.com

FAIR COMPROMISES is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Fair-Compromises-Science-Traveler-Greger/dp/1735421421

16 Comments

  1. Candace

    But…but…but…I love Botox!!!

    Reply
    • J.L. Greger

      As I note in novel, it is a very effective drug for a number of conditions. It can do wonders to make some individuals look younger. However, Botox parties aren’t really safe. Please get your injections in a clinical setting.

      Reply
  2. j. L. Greger

    George, thanks for hosting me on your wonderful blog.

    Reply
  3. Victoria Weisfeld

    Medical mysteries are such fun! Especially like the public health angle J.L. Greger describes. There’s plenty of room for mayhem and misinformation! I have a master’s degree in public health, and even I’m surprised at the odd twists the field must follow.

    Reply
    • J. L. Greger

      I hope you enjoy this medical mystery- Four Compromises.

      Reply
  4. Joseph HAGGERTY

    This is scary business as evidenced by the last two years dealing with Covid. Chemical warfare is something I hate to think of, but I pray our Government thinks about constantly. Experts like Janet are essential to uncovering these threats and in making people more aware. I’m an old man and my vanity left with the loss of my hair so things like botox have no appeal to me. Just like Mr. Black stated I believe ladies should stay away from the use of Botox.

    Reply
    • J. L. Greger

      Botox has its medical uses and can be a very effective drug. But its distribution during so called Botox parties seems dangerous.

      Reply
  5. Michael A. Black

    Take a pass on the botox, everybody. I’ve known Janet for years. She’s a regular at the PSWA Conference and is always fascinating to listen to. Believe me, this lady can write and really knows her stuff. Her books are great reads. Do yourself a favor and pick up her series.

    Reply
    • J. L. Greger

      Thanks for your comments. Happy Holidays

      Reply
  6. Donnell Ann Bell

    I love this post! Welcome to George’s blog, Ms. Greger. I’m curious a statement you mentioned. You write: As scientist and dean, I can tell you that recruiting and retaining women and minorities to faculty positions is not easy. Furthermore, it’s not fun being the only woman on a government panel.

    Is there a shortage of women majoring in biology? I obviously understand how difficult it must be to reach your level of academia as far as hiring. But why is it difficult for women to be *retained* once they get there? Thank you, and what stellar company you’re in! I had no idea Agatha Christie worked in a pharmacy during World War II.

    Reply
    • J. L. Greger

      The number of women majoring in biology has increased but retention is a severe problem. There are many reasons. One is inflexibility in academia for family responsibilities. The major one is women generally don’t receive the same money or respect as men in similar positions.

      I can add diversity is important because it affects the type of research problems that are emphasized. I hope my books encourage women and minorities to select careers in science. I try to show in my books a few possibilities besides the traditional academic ones.

      Reply
  7. Ashley-Ruth M. Bernier

    Such a cool article! As the daughter of a Black female Ph.D. in neuroscience, I grew up hearing about the situation described in your post—a lack of women and minorities in high positions within university faculty and in health-related fields. Luckily, I had my mom as an example (and because she worked at 2 HBCUs, I saw plenty of others), but I think it’s awesome that you wrote a series featuring a female scientist to give others that great example. Your book sounds very interesting, and I’d certainly love to read it! (On that note, I bet my mom would, too!)

    Reply
    • J. L. Greger

      First off, your mother is to be congratulated.
      Maybe she’d enjoy one of my books for Christmas. Faculty in nursing schools have often commented they like my insider comments.

      Reply
  8. Elizabeth Varadan

    Goodness, this was such an interesting post! The book sounds fascinating, and the scientific facts do, too, and so relevant to the quick fixes on aging that still seem to plague so many women. I will be on the lookout for her books.

    Reply
    • J. L. Greger

      I try to find different and relevant scientific topics for all my books.
      I focused on the emerging areas of cultured and artificial meats in Games for Couples. That book allowed me to explore the problems faced by biotech companies. I focused on new approaches to weight control in Murder…A Way to Lose Weight.

      I guess that’s my point. Science is interesting.

      Reply

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Alec Peche’s Newest Release – Embers of Murder

Being a writer is being a lifelong learner. . .

I’m a guest this month for George’s blog, and if not for him, I would have made a huge blunder in my most recent book, EMBERS OF MURDER. I thought I understood the military. I guess I should have watched more television. I have a character in the book from NCIS. I thought it was a part of the military command. Fortunately, I happen to be talking to George about it, and he enlightened me that it’s a civilian personnel activity of the Navy. My character’s rank was changed from Lieutenant to Special Agent. Whew!

Each book brings about research. Whether it’s using Google Earth to stand on the streets of cities, I have never visited or trying to understand how various law enforcement agencies work across the world.

Like many authors, I occasionally glance outside, expecting to see an unmarked van surveilling my house to determine if I’m a criminal. Sometimes my research determines how long it takes someone to die from X poison. Did you know that most human bodies don’t burn into ashes if they die in a house fire? Well, you do now. Smoke inhalation is what kills them. I have a head filled with random knowledge ready in case the question is ever asked on Jeopardy.

I also shop online for random stuff as a part of my story. Where can I get a tank of nitrogen gas? How about a helium tank? Did you know that the mini helium tanks that you buy from party stores have twenty-one percent air in them? You can’t die inhaling the gas from a party-store purchased helium-filled balloon. Instead, you have to buy your helium tank from a welder’s supply. There you go… more random knowledge.

When I mentioned that EMBERS OF MURDER would be about an arsonist, a reader wrote to me to say that he investigated fires for an insurance company and could be a resource for any fire questions. He was very helpful and suggested I use isopropyl alcohol to start a fire rather than gasoline as it doesn’t leave a residue that can be traced.

It’s all fiction, so why bother to get technical parts of the story right? Because bad information can be a distraction. I watched an episode of “ER” in the late 1990s. They portrayed something so medically inaccurate that I never again watched the show. I missed the next decade of shows because of my outrage with that single inaccuracy. I lost faith in ER’s writers.

I feel the same way about fiction stories. Even though I’m reading fiction, there are parts of every story that need to be true or believable. A character needs to behave like they have for the past five books. Science must be true whether the story is set on earth or some imaginary planet. I have an arsonist trying to hide their work, and I can’t achieve that if I start a brushfire with gasoline and expect that the fire people can’t figure that out. Duh.

Sometimes the research is routine (What’s on the menu of a Queenstown pub-restaurant). Other times I’ll spend nearly an hour going down a rabbit hole fascinated by what I looked for. For example, I’ve never visited Israel, yet I had a part of EVERGREEN VALLEY MURDER related to the Dead Sea.  Before I knew it, an hour passed as I looked at the sea with online pictures and Google Earth and read a little history of the area.

Being a writer is the best way to keep your brain engaged with the world around us!

Author of Jill Quint, MD Forensic Pathologist series (12 books), and Damian Green series (4 books)

Contact:  www.AlecPeche.com or Author@AlecPeche.com

4 Comments

  1. Michael A. Black

    Yeah, George is a great asset to other writers. It sounds like you’re conscientious about research, which is always a plus. Perhaps you should consider joining the PSWA. George and I are both members. Good luck with your writing.

    Reply
    • Alec Peche

      I probably should join PSWA. Of course, half of the problem is knowing when you could be wrong about something and then taking initiative to check out your line of thinking., lol.

      Reply
  2. Cynthia Surrisi

    Congratulations to Alec on her new book. Great interview.

    Reply
    • Alec Peche

      Thanks, Cynthia. I hope the Twin Cities are avoiding this Nor’easter that dropping a ton of snow.

      Reply

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