Review: “The Good Nurse” by Charles Graeber

the good nurse by charles graeber book cover from goodreads, background image from unsplash by insung yoon
Original background cover photo credit: insung yoon on Unsplash

Charlie considered himself lucky.

The Good Nurse, Chapter 1 opening

Author: Charles Graeber
Publication Date: July 29th 2014
Publisher: Twelve, Hachette Book Group
Genre: True Crime
Find it on: Goodreads

Synopsis

After his December 2003 arrest, registered nurse Charlie Cullen was quickly dubbed “The Angel of Death” by the media. But Cullen was no mercy killer, nor was he a simple monster. He was a favorite son, husband, beloved father, best friend, and celebrated caregiver. Implicated in the deaths of as many as 300 patients, he was also perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history.

Cullen’s murderous career in the world’s most trusted profession spanned sixteen years and nine hospitals across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. When, in March of 2006, Charles Cullen was marched from his final sentencing in an Allentown, Pennsylvania, courthouse into a waiting police van, it seemed certain that the chilling secrets of his life, career, and capture would disappear with him. Now, in a riveting piece of investigative journalism nearly ten years in the making, journalist Charles Graeber presents the whole story for the first time. Based on hundreds of pages of previously unseen police records, interviews, wire-tap recordings and videotapes, as well as exclusive jailhouse conversations with Cullen himself and the confidential informant who helped bring him down, THE GOOD NURSE weaves an urgent, terrifying tale of murder, friendship, and betrayal.

Graeber’s portrait of Cullen depicts a surprisingly intelligent and complicated young man whose promising career was overwhelmed by his compulsion to kill, and whose shy demeanor masked a twisted interior life hidden even to his family and friends. Were it not for the hardboiled, unrelenting work of two former Newark homicide detectives racing to put together the pieces of Cullen’s professional past, and a fellow nurse willing to put everything at risk, including her job and the safety of her children, there’s no telling how many more lives could have been lost.

In the tradition of In Cold Blood, THE GOOD NURSE does more than chronicle Cullen’s deadly career and the breathless efforts to stop him; it paints an incredibly vivid portrait of madness and offers a penetrating look inside America’s medical system. Harrowing and irresistibly paced, this book will make you look at medicine, hospitals, and the people who work in them, in an entirely different way.

From Goodreads

Review

Book Content Warnings: suicide attempts, car crash, physical abuse, depression, alcoholism, animal abuse, stalking, panic attacks, sexual abuse, infidelity, gaslighting

The Good Nurse is a disturbing tale of what happens when a bad actor manipulates their way to near free reign in a fractured healthcare system. Author Charles Graeber paints a frightening portrait of killer Charles (Charlie) Cullen’s long career in the American medial system and how he was able to kill for so many years in this engaging true crime piece. This is one of the top medially-oriented true crime books I’ve read in a while!

It seemed possible that someone had been intentionally and repeatedly poisoning IV bags in the Saint Barnabas Hospital storage room.

The Good Nurse, p18

In part one of the story readers shadow Charlie. We start with a glimpse of his former family life and how that plays into his deteriorating current relationships. The author never outright assigns any diagnoses to Charlie but it’s clear from descriptions of his interactions that Charlie’s mental state is somehow disturbed, whether that be from past trauma or other cause. Then readers follow Charlie and his activities in his roles at various hospitals. Descriptions of the burn unit Charlie first works in are intense and a stark contrast to the cold and calculated killings he starts up shortly after. It’s incredible how positively his co-workers viewed Charlie! He’s described as exceptionally hard-working and helpful, picking up extra shifts at unpopular hours in units that seem understaffed. Meanwhile patients start mysteriously dying…

Charlie always preferred the hospital at night, without extras: the candy stripers, administrators, and visitors. The gift shop was closed, the public bathrooms locked. Even the janitors were gone, their whirring machines lassoed with yellow extension cord.

The Good Nurse, p115

Part two of the story starts in with the detective work. Without going in to too much detail, I’ll just say the actions of some of these medical institutions to cover their legal fronts is appalling, and the entire tale of the investigation makes you more than a little paranoid about the healthcare system. Thankfully I do believe advances in technology mean higher prevalence of things like video cameras. But that doesn’t put aside the fact that Charlie was able to figure out a way around a quite intelligent medicine distribution machine, and not every system is completely secure. The real heroes in this story are the persistent detectives, upstanding Poison control Director, and a friend who goes above and beyond in service to their community. The actions of these people revive ones hope.

The Good Nurse was interesting from start to finish, well-structured, and engaging. Although set in the American medical system the story is never bogged down with jargon, and keeps the story moving. I highly recommend this as a fascinating medical true crime read!

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