IN THE DREARY HALF-LIGHT OF A Connecticut motel room, an emergency room physician, just fired for prescribing drugs to fuel his own addictions, contemplates ending his misery. He empties bottles of prescription pills onto the bed—”enough to kill a small army,” he notes—then sits up all night, thinking. “I’m 36,” he says to himself. “And I’m going to die.”
The scene could have been lifted from a Michael Palmer medical thriller, but on this night in 1979 the M.D. in extremis was the author himself. And the aborted suicide attempt—Palmer decided to drive to a support group instead—pointed him toward a successful career as a writer. “I knew then,” he says, “I had to get well and go in another direction.”
Four months later a clean and sober Palmer, who had already written one rejected novel, landed a $250,000 advance for a thriller called The Sisterhood, and the rest is whodunit history. His first six novels have sold nearly 6 million copies; there is a just-wrapped movie version of one of them, Extreme Measures, starring Hugh Grant; and his latest medical mystery tour, Critical Judgment, is selling briskly.
Pleased with the turnabout in his life, Palmer, 53, who lives in Swampscott, Mass., with second wife Noelle, 37, a special needs teacher, and their son Luke, 5, has no delusions of literary grandeur. “I’m a commercial storyteller,” he says. “I don’t want turns of phrase or stuff inside the books that will pull people out of the story.”
Instead he relies on real-life medical dramas to draw them in—he was a practicing ER physician until 1991. “Something like almost every ER thing that happens in the books has happened to me,” he says. The doctor-heroine in his latest book, for instance, must choose between treating a critically injured auto-accident victim and saving the man who intentionally hit her—an ethical dilemma Palmer himself once faced. “Physicians have to make horrible triage decisions,” he says. (A drunk driver had slammed into an elderly couple’s car. Palmer elected to treat the drunk first, because he had a good chance of surviving; the woman, who seemed likely to die, was treated next but later died.) “I didn’t keep working [in ER] for the ideas,” he adds. “I really liked it.”
Medicine seemed the career he was made for. The son of a Springfield, Mass., optometrist and a homemaker, Palmer graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. By 1970 he was running a free clinic in Cincinnati and speaking out against drug abuse on a local TV show. But there were signs of trouble all along. Palmer had discovered drinking the summer after college. “I grew up desperate for approval and without a very well developed sense of self,” he says. “I needed to be colorful, and I was colorful when I drank.”
As his professional responsibilities increased, so did his drinking. Weary of his bad habits, his first wife, Judy (a college administrator with whom he has two sons, Matthew, 29, an assistant to U.N. Ambassador Madeline Albright, and Daniel, 26, a communications consultant), booted him in 1971. Palmer then turned to tranquilizers. “I was losing my mind,” he says.
Somehow, writing helped. Palmer was inspired by Robin Cook (Coma), whom he had known slightly when both were residents at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and chose to ignore the counsel of his younger sister, who had pronounced him too dull to write. “My world was out of control,” he says, “but the world in my writing was in control.” An editor friend saw promise in his flawed first attempt, a thriller called The Corey Prescription, which Palmer started when he was under the influence of his addictions, and directed him to an agent who urged him to try again. The proposal for The Sisterhood—completed when he was staying sober by attending up to 20 support meetings a week—was accepted by a publisher just in time: Broke, Palmer was about to be evicted from his $254-a-month Weymouth, Mass., apartment.
Those precarious days now seem worlds away. He and Noelle, whom he met at a Boston benefit and married in 1989, live with Luke in a spacious colonial overlooking the sea. In 1991, Palmer quit his post at the Falmouth, Mass., emergency room, where he had worked since 1980, to spend more time with his young son and to concentrate on the writing that’s making him rich. Still, he remains humble. Palmer works at least 15 hours each week counseling physicians with chemical dependency problems. “I tell them, ‘There’s nothing you can tell me you did,’ ” he says, ” ‘that didn’t happen to me.’ ”
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Swampscott