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A Perilous Conception by Larry Karp

Larry Karp is a retired Seattle area physician who was involved in reproductive genetics from the early days of in vitro fertilization. There was so much controversy over the procedure in the mid-1970s that Karp remembers thinking at the time that the issue would make a good plot for a mystery. To Karp’s knowledge, no one actually was murdered over the issue of in vitro fertilization, but the controversy raised so many heated arguments that the potential for violence and blackmail was certainly present.

Karp’s intimate knowledge of what can and does go on in a medical research facility and in an OB/GYN practice make the plot of “A Perilous Conception” chillingly real. I can recall reading about the race for the first “test tube baby” (more accurately, petri dish fertilized eggs) and there was definitely divided opinion about what would happen if the baby turned out to be abnormal. Did man have a right to play God? Others saw it as the best chance for couples who could not conceive normally to have a baby. Time has proven out most of the positive results that have come from in vitro fertilization.

The book is set in 1976 when teams in the U.S. and the U.K. were in the midst of a race to the birth of the first in vitro baby. The story is about an in vitro fertilization that went seriously wrong and had to be covered up to protect the doctors involved when a distraught dad kills the research doctor who was responsible for the fertilization process for his son.

Police Detective, Bernie Baumgartner latches on to the case and will not let it go until he gets the OB/GYN, Dr. Colin Sanford, to admit that the procedure used was in vitro fertilization against the express orders of the chairman of the OB/GYN program at the University hospital. Baumgartner also is determined to find out what happened to a lab tech supervisor who disappeared shortly after the patient involved in the covered up in vitro case conceived.

The author uses a fairly unusual technique of writing alternatively in the voices of Sanford and Baumgartner. By doing so the reader gets inside the heads of both guys and finds out that both men are flawed. It is actually hard to like either character at times, although both redeem themselves in some ways by the end of the book.

Sanford displays that annoying hubris that is common in doctors who make it clear that they possess superior intelligence and can wield god-like power over the lives of other people. In the end Sanford recognizes his hubris as a short-coming and understands how deep scars from childhood helped to mold his character.

Baumgartner is the stereotypical cop who works so much of the time that it ruins his marriage. He is content to sleep on the couch of one of his regular informants. After proving that he’s the smartest cop on the force he can’t wait to thumb his nose at the police department and to go independent as a PI. Karp could easily turn Baumgartner into a mystery series character.

This is a unique story with an intricate cat-and-mouse plot that will particularly appeal to those who are familiar with academia and medical research.

Liz Nichols

A review copy was provided for this article.

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