Written by Denis Faye
At just about every cocktail party, cardiologist D.P. Lyle attends, someone inevitably hits him up for free advice. And they always ask the same, lame questions; “cholesterol this” or “gall bladder that.” To break up this monotony, the physician-cum -author attends writing conferences, where freeloaders at least have panache. “Writers want to know how to kill someone,” muses Dr. Lyle, “or what a gunshot wound looks like.”
In fact, the good doctor so enjoys these questions that he started a Q&A column for the Mystery Writers of America. That proved to be so fun that he then built his own website, www.dplylemd.com. His inexhaustible ability to answer even the weirdest medical question in complete detail also led to consulting work on several television procedurals, including Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Monk and House.
Last August, Dr. Lyle published Forensics and Fiction, a collection of the more interesting (and freaky) questions that have come his way. It's his fifth book in a list that includes two novels and Forensics for Dummies. Luckily for the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, the doctor found time between writing and saving people's lives to answer a few of our questions.
It seems a bit odd that a writer would have to ask a doctor about ancient Egypt or zombies or any of the other bizarre questions in your book.
Actually, I enjoy those historical and oddball questions most because it makes me think a little bit. We're all smart in a certain area and ignorant in other areas. Many writers don't understand medicine and science and things like that, so when they ask questions like, “How was pain treated in ancient Egypt?” sure they could spend several hours researching and get some answers, but they may not really get a grasp for how it fits into the whole situation of medical science. I can research that question in a fraction of the time and weed through all the B.S. because I can say “this is important and this is not important. This is true and this is not true” and give them the answer they need to craft a believable tale.
So even though people appear to be asking questions that aren't medical, it's the medical context that you give them that helps.
Exactly. The hard part about going out on the Internet is that you have to have a filter. If you don't have that filter, everything sounds good. If a lawyer was researching a legal case, he'd know if it was factual. I wouldn't.
What gaffs do you see in movies and on the TV that you roll your eyes at?
Several. One of them, I call the “instant death.” It's very hard to kill someone instantly, especially with a gun or a knife -- especially the guy who throws the knife across the room and it sticks the guy in the chest, and he falls down dead. Not going to happen. It's going to take hours, if not days, to die from a knife wound unless it hits something really, really vital and that's not likely. Same with a gun. Brain, heart or upper part of spinal cord, yeah, you can drop someone like a sack of potatoes. Short of that, they're going to bleed to death, or they're going to die of an infection.
How many times have you seen the guy shot, and he's written out of the script? Actually, what's going to happen is that he's going to be angry, and he's going to come after you. He's going to be bleeding, but now, he's going to take you with him.
The other thing is the “knockout punch.” You knock someone out, and they're written out of the script. In real life, think about the boxing matches you've seen. Guy gets knocked out and two minutes later, he's sitting on the stool in the corner saying it was a lucky punch. That's real life. If you knock someone out, they're unconscious for seconds or a very few minutes. They might be groggy for a few minutes, but after that, they're upset, and they're going to come after you. That doesn't happen in movies.
So in the movies, the guy who “just won't die” is more medically accurate than the guys that drop with one bullet.
In many respects. It's interesting, having worked in ERs many hours of my life, people say that gunshot wounds don't really hurt at first. It's almost like getting punched in the chest or the belly because the speed and impact of the bullet kind of kills the nerves. There's the shock there that they know something's wrong, but it doesn't really have the pain that people think it has, not all the time. An hour later, they start feeling the pain. So consequently, if the guy doesn't bleed rapidly and go into shock, he's going to keep fighting with you.
What about that Bruce Willis move, where he hits the guy in the nose with an upward motion, shoving the cartilage into the brain and killing him instantly?
Extremely unlikely. Can it be done? Sure, by someone trained in those types of martial arts. But most people who hit someone don't do it with everything they got anyway. There's that pullback. It would have to be perfect, and that's just not going to happen. Same with the karate chop that breaks somebody's neck.
Any other gaffs?
The “pretty death.” You know what I'm talking about. The hair's perfect, the make-up's perfect, the eyelashes fluttering slightly, the face is relaxed and peaceful and there's the emotional speech about “I'm going to miss you” and that kind of thing. Trust me, if someone's dead, they look dead. They look ugly within a minute or two. Pale and waxy and gaunt.
What does Hollywood tend to get right?
A lot of the things in police investigation they get right because they know so much about that. One great example is in the Coen Brothers' movie Blood Simple. Great movie. There's the scene where the boyfriend finds Frances McDormand's husband, who owns the bar. He thinks she shot the guy, and he's sitting in the chair with the pool of blood beside him, and he looks dead. But the camera angles down on his finger and the blood is trickling down. Dead folks don't bleed. At death, the heart stops, blood quits circulating, blood quits coming into the wound.
Flash to the next scene, where he's got the dead guy in the backseat of his car and he's driving down the road. That's pretty creepy. You're thinking, “He's going to get pulled over. He's going to get caught.” But the astute viewer, who knew that dead folks don't bleed and this guy's still bleeding, knows that this guy's still alive. That ramps up the tension tremendously. That was very subtle and it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen, science-wise, in a movie. I'm assuming they knew that and planned it that way.
So it's not just about being medically accurate, it's about using medical accuracy to jack up the drama.
Exactly. And that's what my role is. When I answer questions for people, I'm the translator. Since I write fiction, I can read between the lines and know what they're looking for. They're not looking for a didactic lecture on how insulin works. They want to know if they can kill someone with insulin, what it'll look like, what sort of problems are they going to encounter and how can someone save the person. I tell them how it's done and how it can fit into a story, because at the end of the day, storytelling is what it's all about.
There's much more leeway in movies than there is in novel. It's short fiction, it's two hours. You got 120 pages. It's a visual medium, so you're watching everything that goes on. But in a novel, you're letting the reader create the images over a longer period of time, so you have to supply a lot more details because they have time to think, whereas in a movie, they don't have time to think. It's next scene, next scene, next scene.
You seem to dig the more twisted questions. Where do you draw the line?
The line is that I won't answer questions based on real-life situations. Sometimes I'll get a question that's couched as fiction, but I can tell by the details that this is not a fiction writer because if he knows a couple of the details that are in the question, he doesn't need me.
You think he's looking for medical advice?