Obituary: Michael S. Palmer / Doctor and addict who wrote thrillers

Oct. 9, 1942 - Oct. 30, 2013

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Michael Palmer, a physician who began writing tightly plotted thrillers at his kitchen table in 1978 to escape the inner chaos of alcohol and drug addiction, in the process finding a worldwide audience and sobriety, died Oct. 30 in New York. He was 71.

Dr. Palmer had had a heart attack the previous day while going through customs at Kennedy International Airport in New York. He was on his way home to Swampscott, Mass., from an African safari vacation, said Jennifer Enderlin, senior vice president and publisher of St. Martin's Press, who was his longtime editor. He died at a New York hospital.

Dr. Palmer published 19 books. "Extreme Measures," his fourth novel, became a movie in 1996 starring Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman. He sold about 5 million books worldwide, and his books were translated into 35 languages, Ms. Enderlin said. His 20th novel, "Resistant," is to be published in May.

An internist and former chief of medicine at Falmouth Hospital on Cape Cod, Dr. Palmer had become hooked on self-prescribed pain killers and alcohol in the 1970s after a divorce and a series of knee surgeries. In 1978, he was charged with writing false prescriptions, sentenced to two years of probation and had his hospital privileges suspended.

A year later, he began injecting himself with Demerol.

"I was thinking at some point I will kill myself, and I almost did," he told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview.

Psychiatric help, and the support of fellow physicians in recovery, got him past the worst of it. (He never lost his medical license.) Writing suspense thrillers became a kind of long-term therapy before it became his profession.

"I loved the feeling of being in control when my life was not," he said.

And, he added, "When you find you don't like a character, you just type four letters and he's dead."

Dr. Palmer said he had quit drinking and taking drugs in late 1979.

He first spoke publicly about his addiction in 1991. Dr. Palmer was by then writing full time, working a flexible schedule as an emergency-room doctor and counseling other physicians with drug and alcohol problems.

After retiring from clinical practice in the mid-1990s, Dr. Palmer became associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Health Services, a nonprofit that provides doctors with mental health and substance abuse help.

Michael Stephen Palmer was born in Springfield, Mass., Oct. 9, 1942. He graduated from Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn., and received his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

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