Black Bag Moon is a collection (one is tempted to say a "mixed black bag") of short stories (but not clearly "short fictions" - clarified below) about medical patients. The reputed authors are identified as these patients' physicians, who recount these stories in first person. By my math, there are nine authors who narrate stories about 37 patients in 29 chapters. Most chapters have two patients in unrelated stories that sometimes share a theme. Several of the authors know each other as colleagues and two are a married medical couple. Most of the stories occur in Australia or New Zealand but some are in places are as far flung as England, Scotland and unidentified, possibly fictional, islands in the South Pacific. The practitioners are, for the most part, family physicians and care for people of all ages, providing care for everything from breast masses to congestive heart failure to trauma to occupational health to - almost overwhelmingly - mental illness threatening severe violence. The last - serious mental illness -  is, as are all the patients and their illnesses in this volume, almost exotically different from anything most readers of this database are likely to encounter as health care providers or readers. Think Crocodile Dundee or perhaps television's Dr. Quinn or ‘Doc' Adams of Gunsmoke. Or all the above but in the late 20th Century Outback.

Since most of the stories involve working men and women - mainly men - there is a decided flavor of  A. J. (Archibald Joseph) Cronin's The Citadel to the stories; but the peculiar aspect of Australia's frontier pervades each encounter with the patients in this book, whether they are being treated over the radio for breast lumps, being airlifted to the hospital for a badly broken elbow, or becoming demented from environmental toxins in a land and time wherein OSHA and DEP (and the principles underlying them) might as well be acronyms from Mars.

Curiously, for fiction, there are intermittent footnotes to literary (Honore de Balzac, Soubiran) sources, historical figures (Hippocrates) and relevant texts on subjects covered in the stories, e.g., petrol-sniffing, tropical diseases, and physical diagnosis. 


This book is nothing if not Dickensian in range, marvelous characterization, names (Dexter Veriform, Amaranth Fillet, Dymphna O'Reilly, Agnes Crumpacker, Lawless Armstrong, Barker Kaye and Zoltan Nagy, to name but a few) and detail, detail, detail. It is a rich smorgasbord of richly told tales of primary care practice with an eye to the irony, sorrow and joy of such a practice, which has all but disappeared from the U.S. today. The medical experiences in this book represent a curious mix of 21st century technology (computers, air ambulances) and the rugged world of not-quite-blue-collar workers caught in their hardscrabble existence as farmers, miners and factory workers suffering from depression, abdominal pain, shoulder pain and old age as they tend to their quotidian ills, joys, jealousies, and properties.

Several of these stories are gems, e.g., "A English Christmas", which tells two stories: the first involves the type of plain cloth gratitude one can only experience in primary care - a grateful patient suddenly giving the physician, who'd gone to great difficulties to make a house call on a cantankerous old lady, a bottle of Australian wine; the second is the sad but highly believable encounter the same physician has with a vicar for whom all the loose ends of his disturbed life come unravelled.

A quibble: it is not clear who wrote these stories. Most likely, they are germs of stories physicians told Ms Butler. But the true provenance and authorship are not forthcoming in the Forward, Preface or Acknowledgment. Does it matter whether this is fiction, nonfiction or "faction", a la Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song? Probably not. Since this is not a book that purports to be an historical account of medical care in Australia in the 1980's or an history of primary care in New Zealand, such quibbles matter not. It does bother me a little that I can't tell what is "true" medical experience related by physicians and what is fabricated, or augmented, by Ms Butler. (Since Ms Butler is not a physician, albeit an author married to one, it is more the marvel that there are very few passages that do not ring medically true.) Since this is her second such book, one can only hope she will clarify what is hers, what is theirs, and what is the felicitous marriage of both. Perhaps a less conscientiously honest author would have simply labelled this book fiction. After a few acknowledgments beforehand,  I would have.


Radcliffe Publishing Ltd

Place Published

London, UK



Page Count