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Real world now as strange as fiction, some novelists say

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NEW YORK — She glides through the wards in green scrubs and glasses, filling her notebooks, eavesdropping on doctors, plotting her next murder.

And no one suspects a thing.

Officially, Leah Ruth Robinson works as a hospital volunteer. But there's another reason she roams the corridors of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in upper Manhattan.

She wants to learn how people become infected with anthrax and smallpox, sickened by poisoned mushrooms and botulism. She wants to understand the intimate, gruesome details of how they will suffer and die.

Her apartment is stuffed with books and papers on such subjects. Her research is precise. And it finds its way, in all sorts of deadly manifestations, into her novels — fast-paced medical thrillers with titles including "Unnatural Causes," "First Cut" and "Blood Run." Her protagonist is a New York city emergency room physician who finds herself in mysterious, terrifying situations that once would have seemed unfathomable.

Except since Sept. 11, nothing seems impossible anymore.

"Sometimes," Robinson says, "I feel like I'm in the middle of my own plot."

She's not the only one. Mystery writers, particularly those who write medical thrillers set in New York City, find themselves in a world that is stranger than fiction these days, as anthrax and bioterrorism swirl through the headlines and everyone seems jittery about what might happen next.

The unimaginable has become imaginable, says John Marr, a doctor and author who has had a long association with disease and bioterrorism, both fictional and factual. For years he worked as an epidemiologist with the New York State and city health departments. He served on committees on bioterrorism. He created fact sheets on possible bioterrorist threats. He studied the history of anthrax.

And then he used his knowledge to write a fictional account about an anthrax attack in California. When he wrote "The Eleventh Plague" in the mid-1990s with co-author John Baldwin, Marr said, an anthrax outbreak was considered possible but highly unlikely. Health officials, he said, were more concerned about someone unintentionally carrying Ebola into the country.

Before Sept. 11, Marr been tinkering with a plot that involved the collapse of the economy and a mysterious epidemic. His main worry: Readers might find it implausible.

Then the towers collapsed and Marr put his book on hold.

Jillian Abbott, an Australian journalist living in New York, faced a similar dilemma.

After two years of research, some of it spent tramping through remote stretches of India and Pakistan, she was a few chapters short of finishing her first novel when the attacks occurred.

Her plot involves a Pakistani terrorist plotting to overthrow the West by launching a biological attack on the United States. He masterminds it all from an underground haven just outside Sri Lanka.

Forget it, one agent said before Sept. 11. It's just too farfetched.

Now Abbott feels an almost guilty sense of justification.

"I always knew there were dark corners of the world where evil lurked, where low-tech, low-cost equipment could be used in high-tech ways," she said. "I knew because I had spent years doing the research on the ground."

Abbott still hopes to publish the book. But she felt compelled to rewrite some scenes. She removed the part about a terrorist cell living in New York. "Too close to reality," she said.

Abbott belongs to the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, which provides members with all sorts of useful tips on how to bump off characters.

At the organization's headquarters on 47th Street — a musty, creaky old place on the sixth floor of the Mercantile Library building — authors can find, among other things, a list of the 10 most popular poisons, guides to death and decomposition, and a handbook on forensic pathology that includes a chapter on "Wounds produced by pointed, sharp-edged and chopping instruments."

"We're a nice group of people with very devious minds, who are constantly thinking of ways to kill, deceive and double-cross," said Timothy Sheard, an epidemiologist in the infectious disease department at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and author of "This Won't Hurt a Bit," a medical thriller involving a mysterious hospital death.

Other chapter members include a police officer, a hospital president, a lawyer and a judge.

Talk at their monthly gatherings is usually an irreverent mix of murder and mayhem and good-natured grousing about the perils of their creative worlds. Their motto is "Crime doesn't pay . . . enough!"

But lately, their meetings have become more somber. "How do you write about murder and mayhem," says writer Jonathan Harrington, "after everything we have all been through?"

And a more practical question. Do readers want more death and destruction after all they have been through?

"Sept. 11 changed everything," Sheard said. "In real life and in fiction."

At the hospital where Sheard works, the bioterrorism task force now meets regularly, new patients are monitored for signs of anthrax poisoning, and a huge heated decontamination tent has been purchased for use should an outbreak occur.

Such realities have infected Sheard's writing. For his third novel, he has started researching the history of fundamentalists who want to destroy America.

"It's part of the landscape now," he says, "and I think we should be writing about it."

Other writers worry about plot lines that might suddenly seem inappropriate or offensive.

David Cray had just finished a book about a terrorist in New York who had killed several police officers and then barricaded himself into a tenement building with hostages. When the towers fell, Cray said, he locked away his manuscript. He doesn't know if he will ever work on it again.

"It just didn't feel appropriate, in the middle of so much loss," Cray said. "I lost a book, but that is nothing."

His publisher, Otto Penzler backed him up.

"I want my real world not to be reflected in fiction," Penzler said. "I can read about terrorism in Time magazine or The New York Times."

Leah Ruth Robinson couldn't write at all for about a month, paralyzed, like many others, by the images and stories from ground zero. Even now that she is back to her routine — writing about murder and volunteering at St. Luke's — the events of Sept. 11 haunt her creative world as well as her physical one. For that reason, she says, they must be part of any future novel set in New York.

So she wonders about having her heroine caught in the dust cloud near the World Trade Center in her next novel. And then she wonders if that might be too much.

Walter Wager had no problem writing after Sept. 11. The 77-year-old writer from New York, author of thrillers such as "Tunnel," "58 Minutes" and "Telefon," said the attacks made him so mad, so bitter, that he wrote more furiously than ever.

And he suspects his villains might get nastier.

They're already pretty bad. They've crashed cars that sealed the Lincoln Tunnel, trapping thousands of motorists and threatening to kill them if they didn't get $10 million. They've released nerve gas in subways. They've threatened to use remote-control planes as weapons to blow up hotels. And they've found their way into movies, such as "Die Hard II."

But it never occurred to Wager to have villains who were willing to die for their mission.

"My bad guys always want to get out," he said.

Wager's latest novel, "Kelly's People," is due out in March. The villain is an Arab terrorist who threatens to launch a nuclear attack from his cave headquarters in the Middle East. It was too late to substantially alter the book. So it now includes an author's note explaining that it was finished before Sept. 11.

Like Robinson, Wager says it is impossible not to be affected creatively by the terrorist attacks, and by the patriotism, vulnerability and physical changes they inspired.

"They are part of the city consciousness now," he said. "They are part of my consciousness . . . not so much that the buildings are gone, but that we are seeing the National Guard patrolling Penn Station."

Still, while his bad guys might become more evil, and his plots more sinister, in the end Wager's good guys will continue to win.

Says Wager, "I really do believe that happens in reality as well as in fiction."