Doctor helps writers plot murders

Posted at 3:38 PM, Sep 14, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-22 08:00:04-04

The doctor's phone rang. It was another request for his expertise.

A murderous son was donating an organ to his aging father. Somehow, the procedure had to kill the dad. Somehow, the murder weapon had to be the organ itself.

Can you help? pleaded the crime writer, who had six weeks to finish his book.

It is the kind of call cardiologist Douglas Lyle, 67, relishes. He's gotten many like it. In fact, he'd helped the writer kill before.

Lyle has an encyclopedic memory, a Southerner's gift for back-porch raconteurship and an expertise in the myriad mechanisms of unnatural death.

He spends two days a week at his Laguna Hills heart clinic. The rest of the time, he writes crime novels and tries to answer other writers' questions about how to end their characters' lives in weird - but scientifically plausible -ways.

When your Mac isn't working, you go to the Genius Bar. When your car won't start, you find a mechanic. When you want to find out how long your character will live if his body is stripped of skin, or what kind of poison a killer in medieval Europe might use, or whether a body mummifies if it's been bricked into a wall for several years, you call Lyle.

"Plot the perfect crime, and the harder it is, the smarter your protagonist will look when he solves it," Lyle says.

How a crime writer builds a story is a seemingly impenetrable, occult process. Often, it begins with a question like the one about the evil-minded organ donor from Lee Goldberg, a TV writer and novelist who was hard at work on a "Diagnosis: Murder" book.

Lyle is a stubborn man. He brags that he once played most of a high school football game with meningitis. So if it was even remotely possible for a man to murder his father mid-transplant by means that seemed accidental, he would undercover it.

First, they had to decide on the organ to be transplanted. How about a kidney? Could the son donate a kidney and get someone to poison it mid-procedure?

No. An operating room had a carefully orchestrated rhythm; someone would notice.

Lyle thought: What if the son knows his dad is severely allergic to penicillin? And what if, the night before, he gives himself a massive dose of it?

"Dad has anaphylactic shock, his blood pressure drops to zero. They're not going to think it's an allergic reaction for 10 minutes," Lyle said. By then it would be too late.

Goldberg thanked Lyle, hung up and put it in his book, "The Silent Partner: A Diagnosis Murder Novel."

"It's rare to find an expert who understands storytelling," Goldberg says. "Most experts are so into their own world, so into their science, they kind of bristle at the notion of flexibility. They don't understand the drama you're trying to wring out of your facts."

Among the characters Lyle has helped Goldberg kill was an airline passenger with a peanut allergy (the stewardess did it). He also may have saved the writer's life. One day he learned of Goldberg's family history of heart disease, ran blood tests revealing his off-the-charts cholesterol, and put him on statins.

In books and movies, the authorities are always seeking out the advice of an expert like Lyle. They let him tag along, quarrel with him and ultimately - grudgingly - admit that he solved the crime.

In the real world, cops don't call  Lyle. He thinks it would be fun if they did.

"I think a cold-case squad should have a crime writer as a consultant," he says. "They think outside the box and their minds go off in wild directions, most of which have only a glancing brush with reality. But why not open every door and see what's behind it?"

"I've also felt that attorneys should have crime writer consultants to tell the story. Most attorneys aren't good storytellers. What you want to do is spin a yarn."

A lifelong friend, Paul Lees-Haley, remembers building rockets with Lyle as a boy in the cotton town of Huntsville, Ala. He said Lyle had a mischievous streak. After a field trip to a cave, he came back with a bag full of bats and released them at a school assembly.

While still in elementary school, Lyle saw a documentary about a pioneering surgeon who performed surgery on babies with congenital heart disease. "I thought, 'This is what I'm gonna do,'" he says. "It was just so cool, so fascinating."

Lyle attended med school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was a medical resident, and then a cardiology fellow, at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

At 25, he did his first rotation in the ER. He was fighting to save two patients at once, side by side. One was a local politician, the other a vagrant. "I stopped and looked and thought, 'Wow, this is what it's all about.' You had one job: take care of sick people. There was no extraneous stuff. It was you vs. Mother Nature and you went to war."

About 20 years ago, he decided to write novels. He took writing classes at the University of California, Irvine, and began frequenting literary conferences, trying to learn the craft.

"If you go to a cocktail party and people find out you're a physician, they ask about their gall bladder and their cholesterol," he says. "If you go to a writers' conference, they want to know about guns and knives and poisons and dead bodies."

Word spread. He began answering forensic questions in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter, and for the widening circle of people who sought his advice.

He didn't ask for money in return, saying, "Knowledge should be shared." He decided to collect his responses in a 2003 book, "Murder & Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers," and two sequels.

Among his novels is a series featuring Dub Walker, a canny Southerner and med-school dropout who helps police solve crimes.

"He drinks bourbon and plays the blues," he says. "He's probably a little more personable than I am. I made him almost finish medical school, because if you have a medical license, you have to protect it."

To spend an afternoon with Lyle is to hear him roam freely through precincts of medicine, literature, history and anatomy. He wonders why, if intelligent design is true, the Good Lord put a man's urethra through his prostate.

He riffs on John Steinbeck, a Southerner's bone-deep loathing for Gen. Sherman, and on all the random death and bizarre near-death he has witnessed.

A man who arrives at the ER with a metal disk embedded in his brain, and leaves on his own feet. Healthy people who contract freak illnesses and die in a week.

"You learn the randomness of everything. There are billions of viruses out there that you can get," he says. "I always say, 'Eat dessert first.'"

Lyle knows that some of the people who write him for advice do not have innocent literary motives. A cop once told him that his explanatory book "Forensics for Dummies" had been found in a killer's apartment.

To weed out potential wrongdoers, he asks for the correspondent's address, phone number and email address, and specifics of the situation.

"There's nothing I say that's not out there on the Internet," he says, but now and then, he writes to a requester, "This question sounds like it deals with a real-life situation, and I can't answer it."

Over and over, in print and in conversation, Lyle is careful to stress one point. There is no such thing as an undetectable crime.

"It requires incredible luck. Citizens will (muck)  up the best plan ever made," he says. "If you know anything about forensic science, you know there's a million ways to get caught."