Welcome to the noir world of sunny L.A.: meet Peter Spiegelman’s Dr. Knox

cov-spiegelmanbook INT.7-28We’ve said goodbye to John March, one of our favorite New York private detectives, as his creator, author Peter Spiegelman of Ridgefield, moved on to Carr, mysterious ex-CIA leader of a band of diamond thieves. Now it’s time to meet Dr. Knox, planted firmly in the noir world of sunny Los Angeles.

Spiegelman, who left the business world in the early 2000’s to begin a writing career, introduced John March in Black Maps in 2003 and continued with two more March books, Death’s Little Helpers in 2005 and Red Cat in 2007. Carr was the central character of Thick as Thieves in 2011. Spiegelman also edited and contributed to a collection of short stories, Wall Street Noir, that was published in 2007.

Published on July 12 by Alfred A. Knopf, Dr. Knox is the first in a new series about a physician who devotes himself to the poor and homeless. The setting is Los Angeles where the rich and powerful are accustomed to getting their way and gentrification is gradually creeping up on Skid Row. Few things are simply good or evil in this tale, however.

Adam Knox, M.D., gave up a life of ease and prestige to work for an African NGO, finding meaning in using his skills to help the victims of never-ending conflict in the Central African Republic. But a bad decision led to a situation that ended badly and that phase of his life was over too. So he returns to California and settles into a building on the edge of Skid Row that’s both office/ER for the uninsured and his home.

He finances operations with the help of his friend and sometimes business partner, former Special Forces Ben Sutter, who’s now a kind of “fixer” with intimate knowledge of the dark side of Los Angeles. When someone needs the kind of medical attention that might get him noticed by the police or the press in a hospital ER, Ben Sutter can provide, for cash, a well trained M.D. who will do what he can, no questions asked.

Into the clinic one evening comes a small boy, in anaphylactic shock, and his mother; Dr. Knox saves his life and the boy’s mother disappears. The doctor considers his options and rejects putting the boy into the hands of the Department of Child and Family Services; he’ll wait for the mother to come back for her frightened yet stoic little boy.

While he’s waiting, Dr. Knox decides to possibly speed up the mother and child reunion by doing a little amateur sleuthing in the neighborhood, which opens him, the boy, and eventually the clinic staff and Sutter to the attentions two very dangerous groups of people. Both are led by men unaccustomed to hearing no as an answer.

Peter Spiegelman. —Photo by Shel Secunda.
Peter Spiegelman. —Photo by Shel Secunda.

Spiegelman has said that the character of Dr. Knox was one he’d been thinking about for years, the result of his “long interest in the parallels between the doctor and the fictional detective. There are similarities in their observational and deductive skills, of course (recall that Dr. Joseph Bell was one of Conan Doyle’s inspirations for Sherlock Holmes), and also, I think, in their worldviews. Both are privy to some of life’s most grim and intense moments…”

The author comes by his medical knowledge honestly: his parents are both retired physicians and his mother ran an emergency room at a small hospital. Both of his parents, he said, “shared their insights into the burdens and satisfactions of primary care medicine — the intellectual challenges of diagnosis and treatment, the fascinating, often heartbreaking glimpses into so many different lives, the difficulties of preserving empathy while avoiding emotional burnout and the constant, sometimes crushing weight of responsibility.”

The sense of responsibility, to those who seem most in jeopardy, drives the action in Dr. Knox, but it also sets up conflicting loyalties for the physician, who must weigh the effects of his actions against the reactions they set in motion. While the thugs unleashed by a Russian mobster and the lengths to which they’ll go are frightening, what’s truly chilling is the family who derive their wealth and power from their corporation, the fictional Bray Consolidated. Their reach seems to know no bounds. However, never bet against a Spiegelman hero and in this instance, his partner/protector Ben Sutter (who, in addition to his organizational and gun-handling skills, is a skilled real estate investor and flipper of houses).

Spiegelman has promised that Dr. Adam Knox and Ben Sutter will return; a new book is in the works, which is should please those who’ve read Dr. Knox. The dark stories of ever-sunny Los Angeles will continue to percolate from the imagination of a masterful crime novelist; the business world’s loss was crime fiction’s gain.


Dr. Knox, published by Alfred A. Knopf, is available at area bookstores, including Books on the Common in Ridgefield, which recently sponsored an appearance by the author at the Ridgefield Library.