Category Archives: Chris Womersley

Somebody Get Me a Doctor*

ContagionThe human instinct for self-preservation is powerful. So it makes sense that we have a deep-seated fear of contagious disease. That’s part of the reason, for instance, that the recent news about Ebola in West Africa (and a few cases elsewhere) is so frightening. Ebola is a deadly virus and it’s contagious. So it’s only natural that we fear it.

That fear is certainly understandable, so it’s realistic when you see it in a novel. It can also add a great deal of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of more than I could anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ day, there were many illnesses people feared. One of them was smallpox, and we see that as part of the plot in Bleak House. The central plot of that novel concerns the Jarndyce case, a dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. The novel traces the lives of some of the people concerned in that case, including philanthropist John Jarndyce, who’s distantly related to one of the original parties to the dispute. He takes an interest in the well-being of an orphan Esther Summerson, and arranges for her to be hired as companion to Ada Clare, who is also distantly connected to the Jarndyce case. The two women get on very well together, and Esther builds a solid life for herself. As it turns out, she is also connected to the Jarndyce case, and as the novel moves on, we see how the lives of these people, and some others also linked to that case, intersect. While this isn’t always considered a crime novel, there is murder involved, and a police inspector who investigates the case. There is also trouble in the offing for Esther. At one point in the novel, she helps nurse a sick young boy back to health. The result is that she becomes ill herself with what is likely smallpox. It leaves her with permanent physical scars, and while she goes on with her life, it’s a solid example of why so many people feared that particular contagious illness.

The worldwide influenza pandemic that broke out after World War I was also frightening to many people. We see a bit of that fear in Chris Womersley’s Bereft. Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales, after serving in the Somme during The Great War. He’s hoping for the chance to rest and heal from the physical and emotional wounds he’s suffered. But he finds that Flint is far from a peaceful place right now. The influenza pandemic has reached his home town and even touched his family, as his own mother has fallen ill. Everyone’s frightened by the illness. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in his own home in any case, since many people, including his father, believe that he’s responsible for the murder of his sister ten years earlier. So he hides out in an abandoned shack. There he meets a young girl Sadie Fox who’s also hiding. With her help, Walker starts to get past his scars and he discovers what really happened to his sister. He also finds the courage to get word to his mother that he’s alive.

Caroline and Charles Todd, who write as Charles Todd, also use the influenza pandemic as a theme in An Unmarked Grave. In that novel, World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford has become accustomed to dealing with soldiers who’ve been wounded in combat. But as the pandemic begins in 1918, she finds herself and her colleagues overwhelmed with influenza patients as well. There’s special concern too because this illness has also spread to some of those caring for patients, which makes it all the more dangerous. Then, the body of a soldier who’s been hidden among the influenza patients is discovered. His identification’s been removed, so it’s hard to know who he is. But it’s clear that he’s been murdered. And it turns out that he’s a friend of Crawford’s family too. Moved by the death, Crawford wants to find out who killed the man and why, but now she faces a major complication: she’s caught influenza herself, and may not live long enough to solve the murder.

In Thomas N. Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a Scottish transplant to San Francisco. When Doohan learns of an outbreak of a virulant influenza-type virus, he volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to track down the source of the virus and try to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control, in the form of Dr. Suzanne Synge, join the local team and work begins in earnest to try to stop this outbreak. After patient interviews and other medical detective work, it’s established that many of those affected attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba. The team also discovers that this particular illness was spread deliberately. Now Doohan is faced not just with the challenge of trying to contain the illness, but also with the challenge of finding out who’s responsible. And when he finds that out, he also discovers that there are people in important places who do not want anyone to know the truth.

Those who’ve read Robin Cook’s medical thrillers will know that several of his novels include the plot theme of a virus that’s deliberately spread. One example comes in Outbreak. Oh, and as a side note, the novel is nothing like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo. The plot of the novel is quite different. In it, a dangerous illlness seems to be spreading through the Los Angeles-based Richter Clinic. The Los Angeles health authorities ask for help from Atlanta’s Center’s for Disease Control, which sends Dr. Marissa Blumenthal. After a short time, Blumenthal and her team establish that these patients are dying from the highly contagious Ebola virus. The team manage to stop that particular outbreak, but soon there’s another, this time in St. Louis. Then there’s an outbreak in Phoenix. Now it’s clear that someone or some group is spreading the illness deliberately. Blumenthal slowly tracks down the truth, and discovers a deadly conspiracy.

With today’s straightforward air travel and regular contact among people at gatherings, it’s quite easy to imagine a quick and deadly spread of illness. And as we know from recent news, it happens. The fear of that sort of contagion is real, and that’s part of why this plot point can add suspense to a crime novel as well.

On another note, the vast majority of you folks who are kind enough to read this blog are in no danger from the current Ebola outbreak. But thousands of people have already died from it, and more probably will. There are many health professionals who’ve donated their time to fight Ebola in West Africa, which is a lot more than I would have the courage to do. You can help them in their work. One of these groups is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). You can check them out and support what they do right here.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Van Halen.

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Filed under Caroline Todd, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Frank Robinson, Robin Cook, Thomas N. Scortia

All the Sounds of Long Ago Will be Forever in My Head*

SoldiersToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) the US observes Memorial Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country. And that’s as it should be. We owe a debt of gratitude to them and to their families that cannot be repaid.

The casualties of war though are not just physical. The experience of war leaves deep and lasting, sometimes permanent, psychological scars. Sometimes those scars are accompanied by more physical scars; sometimes they aren’t. Either way, though, those soldiers who do make it home alive don’t always leave the war behind. Certainly that’s true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.

In Chris Wormersley’s Bereft, Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales after serving in the Somme during WWI. He’s been physically and emotionally scarred by the Great War. But instead of the rest and peace he needs, he finds that Flint is caught up in the terrible influenza pandemic that followed the Great War. What’s more, many people, including Walker’s own father, believe that he is responsible for the death of his sister, which occurred ten years earlier. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in the family home, so he hides out in an abandoned shack. That’s how he meets ten-year-old Sadie Fox, who’s hiding there herself. With her help, Walker gets past his war scars enough to find the courage to let his mother know he’s alive and to piece together what really happened to his sister.

Jacqueline Winspear and the mother/son writing team of ‘Charles Todd’ both explore the issue of PTSD in their novels. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs was a nurse during WWI, and as the 1920’s begin, she has to cope with the physical and mental scars the war left. She also has to learn to deal with other people’s scars. In fact, the theme of returning soldiers trying to fit back into society is quite strong in that series. Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series features a police detective who took time away from his job to fight during WWI. He’s returned a different person though, and deals with several psychological issues. One of the themes addressed in this series is what people call ‘survivor’s guilt,’ as well as the issue of coping with the fact that one’s had to kill.

Geoffrey McGeachin explores what we now call PTSD in his Charlie Berlin series, beginning with The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin served in Europe, and although he’s come home from the war physically intact, he has several psychic and emotional scars. McGeachin shows how Berlin has to cope with flashbacks and nightmares, as well as with the grim reality that many of his comrades didn’t make it home at all. As time goes on, Berlin does what many former soldiers have done. He gets on with his life as best he can, he tries to start living again and he does what he needs to do. But that doesn’t mean PTSD isn’t part of his life.

It’s also a part of life for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. Robicheaux is a veteran of the Vietnam War. In several of the novels that feature him, he deals with flashbacks and nightmares from that time. And he has a sort of bond with others who also face the same demons. He doesn’t always cope successfully with the psychological challenges he faces, and his life as a cop doesn’t make it any easier. But he does his best to make a life for himself and his family.

Michael Palmer’s The Last Surgeon features Dr. Nick Gerrity, who suffers from PTSD after an act of terrorism during his service in Afghanistan. When he returns to the US, he does his best to start life again. He works with the Helping Hands Mobile Medical Unit to assist wounded veterans and to provide medical service to Washington’s street people. Then a nurse, Belle Coates, is murdered by someone who tries to make the death look like suicide. Belle’s sister Jillian doesn’t believe that though, and works to find out who killed Belle and why. Very few people believe her until her own home is firebombed. The trail leads to a connection between Belle and Nick Gerrity, and he and Jillian work to learn the truth about Belle’s death.

And then there’s Robert Crais’ Suspect, a standalone that features LAPD police officer Scott James. James has PTSD as a result of an attack that left him wounded and his police partner Stephanie Anders dead. Once James heals physically, he’s moved to the LAPD’s K-9 unit.  There he is paired with Maggie, a German Shepherd with her own case of PTSD after the loss of her handler during service with a US Marine Corps unit. James is determined to find out who killed Anders, and he and Maggie begin the investigation. But this is a much more complicated and dangerous case than it seems, and James and Maggie will have to depend on each other and trust each other if they’re going to solve it.

As you can see just from these examples, PTSD is a very real part of life for those who’ve seen military service, and I’ve only offered a few instances here. There are many more. It just goes to show that not all casualties of war are those who die in battle. But I hope these examples also show that those who come back from war with PTSD are humans, capable of growth, of healing and of a meaningful life.

Part of our debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives in military service includes, I think, our debt to those who came back and who need our support. They don’t want our pity. They want and richly deserve the psychological and other support they need as they work to put their lives back together. There are lots of ways in which we can help provide that support too. Volunteering, donations and so on are just a few examples. I’ll bet you can think of more. Whatever you come up with, it’s the least we can do for people who’ve laid their lives on the line for us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Daniels’ Still in Saigon.

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Filed under Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jacqueline Winspear, James Lee Burke, Michael Palmer, Robert Crais

And the Country Found Them Ready*

Some events have such profound effects on us that they quite literally change the world. World War I was such an event. That war propelled us in many ways from the Victorian/Edwardian eras into the modern age. From the use of airplanes to warfare techniques to political realities to social structure to the roles of women, World War I changed the human landscape.

It was also a truly devastating war. More than eight million soldiers were killed; millions more were wounded. It’s hard to get one’s mind round a number like that in the abstract. Want something even more difficult to comprehend? It is said that at least thirteen and a half million civilians died as a result of The Great War. Many of those people were victims of the ‘flu pandemic that started in the trenches of the war. Those deaths, too, changed the human landscape.

To get a true sense of this war, though, it doesn’t just do to look at numbers. As I said, it can be hard to comprehend numbers like that. But crime fiction is full of stories of those who suffered through the war and what its effects were on them. That more personal look at the war can bring it home even more powerfully than any list of numbers could.

Agatha Christie’s fans will know for instance that she worked as a nurse during World War I, and that experience found its way into her writing. Hercule Poirot is a Belgian by birth and as we learn in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he had to flee his own country because of World War I. In the same novel, we learn that his friend and colleague Arthur Hastings was wounded in that war. Hastings goes to Styles Court, the home of an old friend John Cavendish, to recuperate and is drawn into the investigation when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. Although the family is one of the ‘better’ families, that doesn’t mean they’re immune to wartime realities. Everything – even every scrap of paper – is conserved. Dinner is moved to a then-unfashionably early time to save on the need for electricity. Cavendish’s wife Mary works as what was later called a Land Girl. The main reason the family has access to fuel for the car is that Emily Inglethorp is involved in several civic activities. The war affected even the ‘best’ families.

There’s another glimpse of the Great War in Christie’s The Murder on the Links. At the beginning of that novel, Hastings is on board a train heading back from Paris to London. Along the way he meets a fellow passenger and the two get involved in conversation:

 

‘We passed through Amiens. The name awakened many memories. My companion seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of what was in my mind.
‘Thinking of the War?’
I nodded.
‘You were through it, I suppose?’
‘Pretty well. I was wounded once, and after the Somme they invalided me out altogether.’

 

Hastings doesn’t get much time to mull over the war, as shortly after his return, he and Poirot are drawn into the case of the murder of wealthy Canadian émigré Paul Renauld.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs has seen more than her share of World War I. She’s a former nurse who sets up her own detective agency after the Great War. But she hasn’t really been able to leave the war behind. For one thing, there’s her former love Simon Lynch, who was a doctor until a wartime tragedy changed that forever. As the series goes on Maisie has to face the truth of what happened to Simon and go on. Winspear’s series addresses the psychological fallout from that catastrophe. Here, for instance, is what Dobbs’ assistant Billy Beale says about it in Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series:

 

‘I tell you, sometimes I think we’re like the waking dead. Livin’ our lives during the day, normal like, then trying to forget something what ‘appened years ago. It’s like going to the picture ‘ouse, only the picture’s all in me ‘ead.’

 

Today we’d call that post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time it was called shell shock, and we see that reflected throughout this series.

Mother-and-son writing team ‘Charles Todd’ has created two World War I-themed series. One features Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, who took time away from his police duties during the Great War. What he doesn’t tell anyone is that he is not the same person psychologically when he returns from the war as the one who left. He has been severely scarred by his wartime experience, especially by an incident in which he was forced to kill Corporal Hamish MacLeod. He also feels a strong sense of survivor’s guilt. So he’s quite psychologically fragile when he takes up his work at Scotland Yard again. Rutledge’s efforts to keep what’s left of his sanity form an important thread through this series.

The Charles Todd team has also created a series featuring amateur sleuth Bess Crawford, a World War I nurse. While she doesn’t face the same deep psychological scars as Rutledge does, she sees her share of trauma and it affects her as it would anyone.

There are also several novels that explore the after-effects of World War I for civilians. For instance, Chris Womersley’s Bereft takes place in the small town of Flint, New South Wales, where Quinn returns, scarred in more ways than one, after having served in the Somme. He comes back to town to find it in the grip of the post-war ‘flu pandemic. The misery and death, and the panic that comes with them, add a layer of sadness to the already bleak story of the Walker family. Ten years before the events in this novel, Walker’s younger sister was brutally murdered and everyone, including Walker’s own father, believes that he is guilty. So he knows that if he makes himself known in town he’ll likely be killed. Walker hides out in the fields around the town where he meets a twelve-year-old orphan Sadie Fox, who’s hiding out herself in an old abandoned shack. With Sadie’s support, Walker finds the courage he needs to let his mother know he’s alive and to piece together what really happened on the day his sister was murdered.

Bereft isn’t a happy novel and perhaps that’s as it should be. World War I brought much suffering and death, and not just to those who were actually in combat.  It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. Sadly, it wasn’t…   As we stop this Remembrance Day to reflect on those who’ve served bravely and lost their lives in war, I invite you to give back to them. Find a veterns’ charity you feel comfortable with and support it. It’s the very least we can do. Need ideas? Feel free to email me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com).

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lena Ford and Ivor Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Jacqueline Winspear