The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder

By Charles Graeber

(Grand Central, $26.99, 307 pages)

Who is this author?

When a writer can list the following venues for his articles: Wired, GQ, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Vogue, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Travel + Leisure, and The New York Times , you know he can deliver the goods. Charles Graeber is that kind of writer and more – he was once a medical student and has co-written papers that were published in scientific journals. He has also won major awards for his reporting, and his stories have appeared in such respected anthologies as The Best American Crime Writing, The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Business Writing and The Best of National Geographic Adventure.  A Midwesterner by birth, he now lives in Brooklyn and on Nantucket Island.

What is this book about?

Be aware: the title of this book is drenched in irony. It is the true story of a monstrous criminal, Charles Cullen, the registered nurse who became known as “The Angel of Death” when his crimes were made known. Cullen, who from outward appearances was a nice guy, father, friend and respected colleague, was in fact a remorseless serial killer who dispatched as many as 300 victims over 16 years of work at nine hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was finally caught, through the dogged work of two former New Jersey detectives and sentenced in 2006. It took Charles Graeber almost a decade to research Cullen’s life and criminal career, through studying police records, conducting interviews, hearing wiretapped conversations and watching videotapes, along with talking to Cullen and to an informant who tipped off the authorities to the nurse’s murderous ways. Cullen is a mysterious creature: a bright, talented, seemingly shy man who in many ways was a good nurse, except, of course for his compulsion to kill: a “Dexter”-like character with a difference. After all, Dexter only kills evil killers. Cullen killed innocent people. And he is not the only villain here: the hospital administrators who ignored the warning signs and kept hiring him deserve a significant part of the blame.

Why you’ll like it:

Is the summer weather too hot for you? Open this book and you will soon feel a chill. If you are a lover of true crime stories, this is a classic of that genre. If you are fascinated by the minds of psychopaths, this is a book that gets inside the head of a particularly sick one. If you have concerns about the way the medical profession monitors its own, this book will disturb you. And if you appreciate the bravery of those willing to speak out and the determination of those who suspect the worst and proceed to track down a killer, it will tell you a story you will not soon forget.

What others are saying:

Says Janet Maslin in The New York Times: “…a stunning book with a flat, uninflected title that should and does bring to mind “In Cold Blood”…Both [Mr. Graeber] and Mr. Cullen know that the story appeals to prurient interests, as does any graphic tale of true crime. But “The Good Nurse” succeeds in being about much more than Mr. Cullen’s murderous kinks. The causes of his pathology are not interesting. But the eagerness of ambitious hospital administrators to cover up his misdeeds is revelatory. And the police investigation that brought him down is a thriller in every sense of that word.

Publishers Weekly says: “Taking advantage of his exclusive access to serial killer Charles Cullen, journalist Graeber makes the most of the dramatic story of a nurse who began killing patients in 1991, and who eluded prosecution for over a decade. …Without excusing or condoning Cullen’s crimes, the author presents a picture of the killer’s horrific childhood, which may provide an explanation for his descent into violence—a journey that began with animal cruelty and emotional withdrawal from his increasingly frightened wife. Cullen began tampering with IV bags at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey, and patients on the road to recovery, or who were at least stable, started dropping like flies. Incredibly, Cullen was able to move from one nursing job to another even after being forced out of employment because of suspicions that he was responsible for the deaths. Graeber doesn’t pull punches—his description of the effects of insulin poisoning are chilling, and he needn’t resort to hyperbole to damn the hospital administrators who failed to take it upon themselves to stop Cullen from claiming more lives. A deeply unsettling addition to the true crime genre.

“The terrifying, true tale of nurse Charles Cullen, a man who worked with the most vulnerable of patients for 16 years, delivering life or death on a whim. A whodunit where the culprit is identified on page one is as strange as a thriller with no surprise ending, but journalist Graeber presents these facts right from the beginning, never doubting the strength of the story. It works. Even without an uncertain finale, this true-crime tale delivers mystery and intrigue. The author begins with the satisfaction Cullen felt in his work, the good money he made and the doors open to him despite the litany of problems littering his professional and personal record. The author describes how Cullen came to nursing, how he felt a sense of belonging and distinction in his role, and the dysfunction of his personal life. Soon, Cullen was exerting control over his world by taking the lives of patients. Graeber does a particularly good job of showing the mounting evidence against Cullen as his misdeeds were originally discovered, following the nurse from accusation to accusation. The author imbues the story with an intense level of anticipation, with one question constantly in the background: Who will stop this man and when? Graeber describes the administrators who refused to report Cullen in the same way as the whistle-blowers who insisted on involving the police. The author’s cut-and-dried delivery serves to make the many paradoxes more poignant and lend some humor to a dark subject. A thrilling and suspenseful page-turner that is sure to be loved by the majority of readers, who will be both horrified and fascinated,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

“The Good Nurse” is in the stacks now at the Goodwin and Mark Twain branches of The Hartford Public Library.

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