It’s quite amazing isn’t it how quickly the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is moving along on our journey. We’re already at the seventeenth stop of our frightening trip, and I am grateful as ever to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping everyone together and showing us all the thrills and chills. It’s been a long journey and so today, we’re making a rest stop on the Isle of Q. The isle is said to have a natural spring with curative powers, and there’s a new spa and clinic here with all sorts of innovative kinds of cures. Everyone’s looking forward to seeing the island and is busy re-charging ‘phones and cameras. While they’re doing that, let me offer a note of caution about cure-alls, and share my contribution for this week: quackery and charlatanism.
Now, before I go any further, let me make clear that most medical professionals are ethical, hard-working and skilled. And true medical professionals are at least as opposed to quackery as the rest of us are – possibly more. Still, there’s quackery out there, and it makes sense that we’d see it in crime fiction too.
Quackery for instance covers up a real murder in Agatha Christie’s short story The Blue Geranium. Miss Marple is invited one evening to a dinner at the home of Dolly and Arthur Bantry, That’s where Arthur tells the story of George Pritchard, whose wife died of what was put down to shock and fear. She was not in good health to begin with, and was convinced that she could be helped by psychic readers and fortune tellers. She had a difficult time keeping hospital nurses and was generally unpleasant. In fact, here’s what Dolly Bantry says about her:
‘If George Pritchard had brained her with a hatchet and there had been any woman on the jury, he would have been triumphantly acquitted.’
Then Mrs. Pritchard fell under the spell of Zarida, Psychic Reader of the Future. Zarida warned her about several things, including blue geraniums, blue primroses and blue hollyhocks. Then, mysteriously, the flowers on the bedroom wallpaper (which included hollyhocks, primroses and geraniums) began to turn blue. When Mrs. Pritchard was found dead, some people believed that Zarida was telling the truth. Some people believed George Pritchard had found a way to free himself from his wife. But Miss Marple hears the story and suggests an entirely different solution…
There’s a suspicion of quackery in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers. In that novel, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is faced with three deaths. All of the victims were connected in some way to the Bad Water Clinic run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. The clinic features a combination of traditional Navajo medicine and Western medicine, but Sergeant Jim Chee believes that Yellowhorse is a fake. If so, the real healers who were killed might have shared Chee’s belief and might have been silenced for that reason. Chee believes that
‘…the doctor pretends to be a crystal gazer just to get them [patients] into his clinic.’
The fact that this doctor could be a fake and could be manipulating people’s beliefs offends Chee deeply. And it makes Yellowhorse a suspect when Chee is targeted.
Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware is a psychologist, so he runs into his share of quacks and charlatans in the course of his work. In When the Bough Breaks, for instance, he works with his friend LAPD cop Milo Sturgis to find out who killed psychiatrist Morton Handler and his love Elena Gutierrez. The only witness to the murders was seven-year-old Melody Quinn, but for two reasons, she isn’t the most reliable of witnesses. For one thing she’s a child, so it will take special skill to find out what she really knows. For another, she is heavily medicated by Ritalin and other drugs because of a diagnosis of ADHD. Delaware believes that if he can withdraw her medication so that she can think clearly and respond comfortably, she’ll tell him what she knows about the murders. That’s where he runs squarely up against Melody’s pediatrician Dr. Lionel Towle. Towle is a very well-known pediatrician with a reputation for being very free with his prescription pad, and when Delaware first approaches him, Towle is completely unwilling to agree to withdraw Melody’s medications. But Delaware finally convinces Melody’s mother Bonita to withhold the medication temporarily. That’s when Melody begins having nightmares. Delaware is sure that she is upset because of what she’s seen and wants to help her deal with it. But by now, neither Bonita Quinn nor Lionel Towle is willing to allow him any access to the child. But Delaware wants to know what exactly happened on the night of the murders. What’s more, he believes that Towle is a quack who is more concerned with financial success and reputation than he is with practicing good medicine. In the end, Delaware and Sturgis get to the truth of the matter. Although the murders aren’t caused by quackery, it does play a role in the novel.
It does in Donna Leon A Question of Belief too. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is concerned about his aunt Zia Anita. She’s been getting deeply interested in horoscopes lately and at first, Vianello hopes that this is just an interest of hers – not something to be taken seriously. Then he discovers that she’s been taking her share of money out of the family business and donating it to Stefano Gorini, a man with a very dubious reputation. The money is legally hers, so she hasn’t been doing anything against the law. Still, Vianello is worried. Gorini has a shady history of reporting ‘miracle cures’ without proper medical licensing and Vianello comes to believe that the man is a charlatan. He asks Commissario Guido Brunetti to look into the matter and Brunetti agrees. What they discover proves that Vianello’s suspicions are well-grounded. And when they discover how Gorini managed to make his ‘cures’ look credible, it leads to real tragedy.
And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food. In that novel, Gossamer Judge and Kylie Manners buy what they think is weight-loss tea at a club called Café Vlad Tepes. They believe that it’s a miracle way to keep their weight down and for both girls, that’s a priority since they want careers in television. But then both are badly sickened by the tea. When their employer, bakery owner Corinna Chapman, sees that they seem to be under the influence of some really dangerous drug, she’s terribly worried about them. With help and guidance from her friend Meroe, who is thoroughly familiar with a lot of different herbs and drugs, Chapman is able to help the girls recover. She is also able to find out what exactly was in the tea and who tried to sell it.
As I say, most medical professionals are hard-working and dedicated. They are devoted to good medicine and they’re the first to condemn quacks and charlatans. But every once in a while people fall prey to what seems like a miracle. Now, I believe everyone’s ready to go visit the spa and health clinic. Just wait ‘till you try the amazing special drinks they serve! Guaranteed to cure everything!